Opinion | What Comes After the Religious Right?

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By Nate Hochman

Mr. Hochman is a fellow at National Review.

Even for an insider like me, the whirlwind of energy and debate within today’s conservative movement can be bewildering. But what’s clear is that the Republican Party is changing. A new kind of conservatism, represented by right-wing elites like Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo and Tucker Carlson, is making itself known. We are just beginning to see its impact. The anti-critical-race-theory laws, anti-transgender laws and parental rights bills that have swept the country in recent years are the movement’s opening shots. They have made today’s culture wars as fierce as they have been in decades. But this new campaign is also distinctly different from the culture wars of the late 20th century, and it reflects a broad shift in conservatism’s priorities and worldview.

The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian. That may seem strange to say at a moment when a mostly Catholic conservative majority on the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. But a reversal of the landmark 1973 ruling would be more of a last gasp than a sign of strength for the religious right. It’s hard to imagine today’s culture warriors taking any interest in the 1950s push for a Christian amendment to the Constitution, for example. Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity and political alienation. Although it enjoys the support of most Republican Christians who formed the electoral backbone of the old Moral Majority, it is a social conservatism rather than a religious one, revolving around race relations, identity politics, immigration and the teaching of American history.

Today’s culture war is being waged not between religion and secularism but between groups that the Catholic writer Matthew Schmitz has described as “the woke and the unwoke.” “Catholic traditionalists, Orthodox Jews, Middle American small-business owners and skeptical liberal atheists may not seem to have much in common,” he wrote in 2020. But all of those demographics are uncomfortable with the progressive social agenda of the post-Obama years.

Rather than invocations of Scripture, the right’s appeal is a defense of a broader, beleaguered American way of life. For example, the language of parental rights is rarely, if ever, religious, but it speaks to the pervasive sense that American families are fighting back against progressive ideologues over control of the classroom. That framing has been effective: According to a March Politico poll, for example, American voters favored the key provision of Florida’s hotly debated Parental Rights in Education law, known by its critics as the Don’t Say Gay law, by a margin of 16 percentage points. Support for the initiative crosses racial lines. In a May poll of likely general election voters in six Senate battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the conservative American Principles Project found that Hispanics supported the Florida law by a margin of 11 percentage points and African Americans by a margin of four points.

The upshot is that this new politics has the capacity to dramatically expand the Republican tent. It appeals to a wide range of Americans, many of whom had been put off by the old conservatism’s explicitly religious sheen and don’t quite see themselves as Republicans yet. As the terms of the culture war shift, Barack Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” — the mix of millennials, racial minorities and college-educated white voters whose collective electoral power was supposed to establish a sustainable progressive majority — is fraying, undermining the decades-long conventional wisdom that America’s increasing racial diversity would inevitably push the country left.

That thesis was prominently advanced by the progressive political scientists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, but both of them have grown alarmed about the rightward movement among nonwhite voters in recent years. “If Hispanic voting trends continue to move steadily against the Democrats, the pro-Democratic effect of nonwhite population growth will be blunted, if not canceled out entirely,” Mr. Teixeira wrote in December. “That could — or should — provoke quite a sea change in Democratic thinking.” In the absence of that sea change, however, it is likely that disaffected people of all races will continue to move into the Republican coalition.

But is all this good for American conservatism? Particularly for social conservatives older than I am, who have sustained a long string of losses in the culture war, the potential for a new Republican majority is nothing to sniff at. But some have already expressed misgivings about this coalition. “We must not allow evangelical political priorities to be co-opted by functional pagans simply because we share a limited set of political objectives,” wrote Andrew T. Walker, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Pushing back on “woke lunacy” is valuable, he said, but it may not be worth embracing a politics that “causes Christians to adopt or excuse the disposition of cruelty and licentiousness.” As of now, the new secular conservatives and the old religious right are bound together in an uneasy partnership to fight the cultural left. But they may yet find themselves at odds about the country’s future.

The Rise and Fall of the Religious Right

The Republican Party hasn’t always been the natural home for conservative Christians. In the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, some Republican governors — including Ronald Reagan of California — helped liberalize state abortion laws. In 1970, Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s liberal Republican governor, signed what Planned Parenthood’s president at the time, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, approvingly called “the most liberal abortion law in the world.” Democrats, on the other hand, were hardly all social liberals. In 1976, Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid was backed by Pat Robertson, a leading voice on the emerging religious right and the son of a Democratic senator. Mr. Robertson’s ally Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition declared that “God has his hand upon Jimmy Carter to run for president.”

All of that began to change with the inflammation of the culture wars in the final decades of the 20th century: Roe, the rise of mass-produced pornography, the Supreme Court’s ban on school-sponsored prayer, the gay rights movement and the push for an Equal Rights Amendment all drove the religious right to organize as a political force. As Democrats moved left on these issues, the G.O.P. pivoted right. In 1980 the Democratic Party platform added its first plank on gay rights, prompting the conservative columnist Pat Buchanan to remark bitterly that Mr. Carter was “not the sort of simpleton to allow biblical beliefs to get in the way of carrying San Francisco.”

When Mr. Reagan ran for president, he disavowed the abortion bill he signed in California as a “mistake” and courted the Moral Majority. In 1983 he published “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation” — the first book written by a sitting president. By the time George W. Bush was elected on the backs of evangelicals and born-again Christians in 2000, the culture war battle lines were clear. He went on to carry 80 percent of voters who ranked “moral values” as their top issue in 2004.

But American church attendance was declining. The share of self-identified Christians in the United States dropped from 75 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2021 while the share of religious “nones” — i.e., those who identified as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — jumped from 19 percent to 29 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The G.O.P. has not been immune to this trend. The share of Republicans who belong to a church dropped from 75 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2020, according to Gallup. Although the sharp drop-off in religiosity began in the liberal mainline Protestant denominations, it has spread to their conservative counterparts as well. Fewer than half of Republicans said “being Christian” was an important part of being American in 2020, according to Pew — a 15 percentage point drop from 2016. Across the ideological and theological spectrum, organized religion is waning.

As a result, the religious right’s influence in the G.O.P. has been declining since the Bush era. The party’s 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, repeatedly flip-flopped on Roe, voted against a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and decried Jerry Falwell as one of several “agents of intolerance.” Mitt Romney, who sat atop the G.O.P. presidential ticket in 2012, had a similarly spotty track record on social issues.

While President Donald Trump delivered on a number of religious conservative priorities — most notably, appointing enough conservative justices to the Supreme Court to cobble together a likely majority of anti-Roe votes — he is a lifelong pro-choicer and sexual libertine who made explicit appeals to gay and lesbian voters on the 2016 campaign trail and was the first openly pro-same-sex-marriage candidate to win the presidency. “It is hardly surprising that the religious right is no longer even perceived as a relevant force in U.S. politics,” George Hawley concluded in The American Conservative. “Far from a kingmaker in the political arena, the Christian right is now mostly ignored.”

Revolution From the Middle

The decline in Republican church membership directly coincides with the rise of Mr. Trump. As Timothy P. Carney found in 2019, the voters who went for Mr. Trump in the 2016 primary were far more secular than the religious right: In the 2016 G.O.P. primaries, Mr. Trump won only about 32 percent of voters who went to church more than once a week. In contrast, he secured about half of those who went “a few times a year,” 55 percent of those who “seldom” attend and 62 percent of Republicans who never go to church. In other words, Mr. Carney wrote, “every step down in church attendance brought a step up in Trump support, and vice versa.”

The right’s new culture war represents the worldview of people the sociologist Donald Warren called “Middle American radicals,” or M.A.Rs. This demographic, which makes up the heart of Mr. Trump’s electoral base, is composed primarily of non-college-educated middle- and lower-middle-class white people, and it is characterized by a populist hostility to elite pieties that often converges with the old social conservatism. But M.A.Rs do not share the same religious moral commitments as their devoutly Christian counterparts, both in their political views and in their lifestyles. As Ross Douthat noted, nonchurchgoing Trump voters are “less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced” than those who regularly attend religious services. No coincidence, then, that a 2021 Gallup poll showed 55 percent of Republicans now support gay marriage — up from just 28 percent in 2011.

These voters are more nationalistic and less amenable to multiculturalism than their religious peers, and they profess a skepticism of the cosmopolitan open-society arguments for free trade and mass immigration that have been made by neoliberals and neoconservatives alike. “M.A.Rs feel they are members of an exploited class — excluded from real political representation, harmed by conventional tax and trade policies, victimized by crime and social deviance and denigrated by popular culture and elite institutions,” Matthew Rose wrote in “First Things.” They “unapologetically place citizens over foreigners, majorities over minorities, the native-born over recent immigrants, the normal over the transgressive and fidelity to a homeland over cosmopolitan ideals.”

In this sense, the fierceness of today’s culture wars is actually tied to the decline in organized religion. Frequent church attendance is correlated with more negative attitudes toward gay men, lesbians and feminists, but as the pollster Emily Ekins noted in 2018, it softened respondents’ views of culture war issues such as race, immigration and identity. Nonchurchgoing Trump voters are more likely to support a border wall, tighter restrictions on legal immigration and a ban on immigration to the United States from some Muslim-majority countries. They are less inclined to agree that “acceptance of racial and religious diversity is at the core of American identity.” While the majority of religious conservatives eventually fell in line behind Mr. Trump, the political and cultural energy he represented was primarily a reflection of the nonreligious right.

What is occurring on the right, then, is a partial realization of the program that the hard-right writer Sam Francis championed in his 1994 essay “Religious Wrong.” He argued that cultural, ethnic and social identities “are the principal lines of conflict” between Middle Americans and progressive elites and that the “religious orientation of the Christian right serves to create what Marxists like to call a ‘false consciousness’ for Middle Americans.” In other words, political Christianity prevented the right-wing base from fully understanding the culture war as a class war — a power struggle between Middle America and a hostile federal regime. He saw Christianity’s universalist ideals as at odds with the defense of the American nation, which was being dispossessed by mass immigration and multiculturalism. “Organized Christianity today,” he wrote in 2001, “is the enemy of the West and the race that created it.”

Mr. Francis’ position, of course, has always been far outside the mainstream of conservative opinion. Conservatives have traditionally viewed religion as foundational to Western heritage, and they have seen its moderating influence on identitarian conflicts as a crucial component of civic harmony. But as a description of recent trends, his assessment holds some weight: The decline of organized religion on the right has, in fact, supercharged the culture war.

Many observers — including Mr. Francis, whose writing became more openly white nationalist toward the end of his career — have been quick to suggest that this new energy is, in essence, white identity politics. It’s true that the decline of religion as an organizing force on the right has made other forms of identity more prominent — and in the absence of a humanizing Christian ethic, white racial consciousness could fill the void. There are and always have been strains of white-supremacist politics that reject Christianity for that reason. (The American eugenicist Madison Grant, for example, echoed Friedrich Nietzsche in denouncing Christianity as “the religion of the slave, the meek and the lowly.” Christianity tends “to break down class and race distinctions,” Mr. Grant wrote in 1916. “Such distinctions are absolutely essential to the maintenance of race purity in any community when two or more races live side by side.”)

But it would be wrong to reduce these developments to racial animus. In a speech at the 2021 National Conservatism Conference, Mr. Rufo, a leading conservative activist, described the New Right’s project as a counterrevolution: “The goal is to protect these people, Middle Americans of all racial backgrounds — working class and middle class — to protect them against what I think is a hostile and nihilistic elite that is seeking to impose its values onto the working and middle classes to bolster their own power, prestige, status and achievement.”

Mr. Rufo, like many of his contemporaries, rarely discusses matters of faith. Today’s right-wing culture warriors think in distinctly Marxian terms: a class struggle between a proletarian base of traditionalists and a powerful public-private bureaucracy that is actively hostile to the American way of life. In lieu of Mr. Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative avatars of today’s culture war look more like Mr. Rufo or — at the level of elected office — Governor DeSantis of Florida. A hero of the new cultural right and a prospective 2024 presidential front-runner, the governor is nominally Catholic and is politically friendly to conservative Christians. But he rarely discusses his religion publicly and almost never in the context of politics. (He did cite his “faith in God” and “in the power of prayer” when discussing his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis last November.)

Overthrowing the New Left

Whereas the old Christian conservatism was about defending an old order, the new social conservatism is about overthrowing a new one. The transformation of the right is a direct response to a shift on the left. In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the G.O.P. was the party of the traditional moral order, many individualists, rebels and eccentrics found themselves aligned with progressives. Today the reverse is true. The left is now widely seen as the schoolmarm of American public life, and the right is associated with the gleeful violation of convention. Contemporary social pieties are distinctly left wing, and progressives enforce them with at least as much moral ardor as the most zealous members of the religious right.

In recent years, American progressivism has departed from its traditional live-and-let-live philosophy on social issues, graduating from a push for rights (e.g., same-sex marriage) to a demand for affirmation (e.g., mandates that religious bakers custom-make cakes celebrating same-sex marriage). Progressives and religious conservatives alike have argued that this was the inevitable conclusion of the gay rights movement — that the logic of civil rights law required the transformation of the public square to accommodate L.G.B.T.Q. Americans once they were recognized as a distinct class.

The left’s program is now not so much securing equal rights for certain groups as punishing those who hold views toward those groups that — while well within the mainstream just a decade or two ago — are now deemed unacceptable. Religious conservatives, for their part, have increasingly retreated from a battle for the public view of sexuality and marriage to the defensive crouch of “religious liberty.”

Today’s left-wing cultural program represents the tastes and worldview of an insular class of often white progressive elites, who now sit to the left of nonwhite Democrats on any number of social issues, including race. (A 2017 Pew survey, for example, found that 79.2 percent of white liberals agreed that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many Black people can’t get ahead these days,” whereas 59.9 percent of Black Americans said the same.) Though a group Pew calls the ‘progressive left’ — which is 68 percent white — makes up just 12 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, its members are more likely to donate to campaigns and turn out to vote than other Democratic constituencies.

As a result, they exercise an outsize influence over the social agenda of the Democratic Party. Moderate Democrats in Congress have regularly broken with progressives on economic issues like regulation and spending, but the entire party is generally in lock step on most social issues. All but one of the 225 House Democrats elected in 2018 are co-sponsors of the Equality Act, which would write gender identity and sexual orientation into federal civil rights law, and House Democrats have rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledged that ideas central to critical race theory are being taught in public schools, let alone criticized that fact.

As Democratic elites have embraced a more aggressive form of social liberalism, the party has alienated a swath of its traditional working-class base. Many Americans of all racial backgrounds are deeply uncomfortable with at least some aspects of post-Obama cultural progressivism. A recent poll from the American Principles Project, for example, found that Hispanics and African Americans in six battleground states supported “laws that prohibit biological males who identify as transgender women from participating in girls’ sports programs both in K-12 and at the collegiate level.” When it came to “banning puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and physical sex-change surgeries for children under the age of 18 who identify as transgender,” Hispanics supported such measures by a margin of nine percentage points and African Americans by a margin of 15 points.

All this challenges the conventional wisdom among Republican elites. The G.O.P.’s post-2012 “autopsy,” for example, argued for a strategy of moderation on cultural issues — paired with a recommitment to low taxes and deregulation — to make inroads with nonwhite voters. In fact, the opposite strategy seems to have been successful. In 2020, Mr. Trump won more votes from nonwhite people and Hispanics than any other Republican presidential candidate in modern American history and a higher percentage of nonwhite and Hispanic votes than any other since Mr. Bush in 2004, running on an aggressive culture-war platform that simultaneously eschewed several tenets of Republican economic orthodoxy, from welfare cuts and government spending to immigration and free trade. To rephrase James Carville’s famous adage on the 1992 campaign trail: It’s the culture war, stupid.

Conservatism in a Secular America

The future of the emergent, not-so-silent majority remains uncertain. If Roe is overturned, it may well heighten the contradictions within the uneasy alliance of the new and old forms of social conservatism. In the days after the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion, the Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy — perhaps the most prominent representative of M.A.R.s — declared that if Republicans tried to ban abortion, he would become a Democrat. Just let a “woman do what she wants with her body,” he said, with an expletive for emphasis.

A controversy at last year’s Turning Point USA, a conservative youth conference, was instructive in showing the potential cracks within the new coalition. Brandi Love, a pornographic actress who describes herself as a “sex, drink and rock ’n’ roll conservative,” purchased tickets to the event, but after a backlash online, she was barred from attending. She slammed the move, describing it as “a worst-case example of cancel culture” to a writer for The Daily Caller. She added that if Turning Point USA “is the future, then the future is run by puritanical, fanatically devout Christians who will demand compliance or else.” A number of prominent conservatives echoed the claim: “I couldn’t care less who bangs who, and I missed the part of the Constitution that addresses threesomes,” tweeted the TV commentator John Cardillo. The Federalist’s Ben Domenech concurred: “The right has an opportunity to be the big tent party. Don’t be a bunch of prudes.”

At the time, I voiced my own objections to Ms. Love’s presence at the conference. I rejected her argument that she had been canceled by free speech hypocrites because, I wrote, it assumes that “the only valid alternative to political correctness and left-wing cultural orthodoxy is the absence of any social or cultural standards whatsoever.” This is the heart of the distinction between anti-woke liberals and traditional social conservatives: The disaffected recent converts in the conservative coalition often object to the new left-wing puritanism for the same reason that they objected to its old right-wing counterpart: It prevents them from doing and saying whatever they please, free of social repercussions. That is its own kind of libertinism. Social conservatives, in contrast, do not oppose the enforcement of social norms as such; they oppose the enforcement of left-wing social norms on the grounds that they are the wrong norms.

A resolution of these contradictions will not be necessary for the new conservatism to succeed. Every political coalition contains its fair share of internal tensions. But old social conservatives will need to decide how much they are willing to concede in exchange for a political future, and secular converts will need to decide if they are more alienated by the left’s cultural authoritarianism than they are by the G.O.P.’s positions on issues like abortion.

If it can be sustained, however, the secular right may be able to deliver on the old religious right’s priorities. Indeed, if Roe is overturned, it will have been due to the election of a president who exemplified the new conservatism. In many ways, the new conservatism is winning where the old conservatism could not. The parental backlash against progressive pedagogy, for example, has inspired a wave of states and localities to crack down on obscenity and sexually explicit content in school libraries. Whereas the religious right failed on gay marriage, school prayer and a number of other social issues, the new conservatism — which has yet to even fully take shape — has already notched a wave of important victories. At least 17 states have passed laws aimed at restricting the teaching of critical race theory, and 14 have barred transgender athletes from competing in single-sex sports corresponding to the gender they were not assigned at birth.

Where religious conservatives fit in all this remains uncertain. Some have pointed to a new strain of Catholic thought known as postliberalism, championed primarily by Catholic academics such as Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, as one promising alternative path for the New Right. Thinkers in this tradition want to implement a specifically — and sometimes explicitly — Catholic political order. But the relationship between these intellectuals and the grass-roots energy has always been uneasy. Insofar as there is crossover between the two forms of conservatism, the Catholic postliberals could be understood as intellectual fellow travelers in the Trumpian culture war. But they do not define its ethos, and in some ways, they are at odds with it.

While the old religious right will see much to like in the new cultural conservatism, they are partners, rather than leaders, in the coalition. That may be the best thing they can hope for in a rapidly secularizing country. The new cultural conservatism may protect the embattled minority of traditionalist Christians; it will not restore them to their pre-eminent place in public life, as the old religious conservatism hoped to do. But it may have an actual chance at winning. And that, from the conservative perspective, is worth a great deal.

Nate Hochman is a fellow at National Review.

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