Evangelical Pullback/Retreat

The public is getting used to headlines like these: “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback from Culture Wars” and “Southern Baptists Sounding Full-scale Retreat in Culture War?” The former is from The Wall Street Journal and the latter from Renew America. The theme has become a constant in the blog world and among public media, just as it has become a topic of conversation in churches, and wherever “culture wars” have been standard unsettlers, and where innocent bystanders have been unsettled.

Preoccupying topics come and go in the media and public forums. As I compare notes with those who are “on the road” with lectures and at conferences, and check my own recall of responses and questions from colleagues on platforms or from audiences on campuses, at churches, and in public colloquies, this stands out: while “culture wars” remain, the names of the cast of characters, their causes, and their focuses change.

Last month during a question period after my talk on a campus someone asked what I thought of the future of The Christian Right. As an historian, I don’t professionally deal with futures, but, rummaging around in chronicles of the past, it came to me: no one had asked about that in the last couple of years. Store it away with troubled and troubling questions about “The Moral Majority,” “The Christian Coalition,” and less confrontational questions about, e.g., “The New Age.”

None of these are gone without a trace; each leaves a deposit on a tradition which is being revised and re-presented. But, as the two headlined stories mentioned above suggest, we have new situations.

Both articles featured “Russell Moore, the principal public voice of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Renew America, which swings more widely and wildly from the right than the Journal does, included Catholics in its sweep. Author Bryan Fischer reported that conservative Catholics are expressing alarm at Pope Francis’s rebuke of those in the Church who were “obsessed” about culture-war issues like same-sex marriage.

What is going on? Leaders named in these stories, and throughout mainline Protestant ranks, among Catholics-in-the-pew — who are only sometimes in step with those bishops who lead a faction in culture wars — and, now, most significantly, among Evangelicals are changing. These leaders rose from relative obscurity outside the South to become the headliners in culture wars. They are taking new looks. Many report that they have “lost” the young, who desert the pews (but not always the concerns which religion addresses), and are unsure of their place in Latino Catholic/Evangelical and now Black Protestant circles. The “obsessions’ of which the Pope spoke, do not obsess them. They may be indifferent to many religious agencies and outreaches, but they are not responding to the call to be “different” on culture-war lines.

Most significant in the eyes of many observers is the secularization (though sometimes under religious banners) of the Right, be it Far Right or Pretty Far, as in the Tea Party. Many participants in the T.P., according to polls, line up as being religious, but they are in coalition with forces that pay little attention to biblical and churchly calls. Most of their participation is frankly secular and pragmatic, which makes them hard to rally or to count on in the religious side of the culture warriors’ ranks.

Sensitive leaders like the Pope, Russell Moore, and great numbers of those who would be faithful to their core values but can’t live with the peels, are more and more the new agents of change.

Rather than “secularization,” we might speak of “de-churchification,” because, while we note that churches are pulling back from extreme Right Wing connections, religious rhetoric and appeals do remain strong on the Right. “People for the American Way” can supply a vivid anthology of this rhetoric in their calendar, Right Wing Watch, which features, each month, a picture and quotations from well-worn “old pros” like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, etc. The only “newer pros” quoted or featured — Ted Cruz, Mario Rubio, Rand Paul — are more identified with their partisan political expressions than their church ties or evangelical appeals.

For further reading:
King Jr., Neil. “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture Wars.” The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013.
Fischer, Bryan. “Southern Baptists sounding full-scale retreat in culture war?” Renew American ewsletter, October 23, 2013. Accessed October 27, 2013.
Boston, Rob. “Retreating Or Repositioning?” Southern Baptists and the ‘Culture War’ Americans United, Wall of Separation blog, October 23, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013.
Riley, Naomi Schaefer. “Russell Moore: From Moral Majority to ‘Prophetic Minority’.” The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013.
People for the American Way.
Right Wing Watch.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.