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The Hobby Lobby decision is one more sign of the religious right's decline
Social conservatives won a small victory this week. But they're losing the war.
 
Anti-abortion protestors stand outside the Supreme Court. 
Anti-abortion protestors stand outside the Supreme Court.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Another day, another 10,000 or so examples of social media–facilitated ideological panic over the Hobby Lobby decision.

My current favorite, fresh from my Facebook news feed: "What's next? Mandatory burqas?"

Yes, I'm sure that's what's next, just as soon as a suitable case comes down the pike, giving the Supreme Court's conservative majority (the five "Faces of Fascism," according to Twitter) the long-awaited opportunity to one-up ISIS by refounding the Islamic caliphate right here in the good ol' US of A.

Meanwhile, back in the land of the thinking, things look very different. While indignant, paranoid liberals have been suggesting that Samuel Alito's majority opinion signals the resurgence of the religious right, which has now undertaken the task of imposing Catholic misogyny on American women (to paraphrase another Facebook comment), those who have been following the fate of social conservatives for many years understand that something pretty close to the opposite is going on.

Far from serving as a sign that a newly emboldened religious right is returning to political prominence in America, the Hobby Lobby case is just the latest example of social conservative retrenchment and retreat.

Back in 2004, when I began writing a book about the crucial role that a handful of Catholic intellectuals had played in the rise of the religious right, social conservatism was close to the apex of its power. George W. Bush had just won re-election in part by using language and advocating policies derived from Catholic natural law theory and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. Those policies included a robust defense of bringing religion into public life, absolute opposition to abortion and euthanasia (remember Terry Schiavo?), and the introduction of an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the U.S. Constitution.

What a difference a decade can make.

Since 2004, the religious right has suffered reversals on several fronts.

The movement to criminalize abortion at the federal level has largely been replaced by state-level initiatives. Those have made important, and troubling, headway in several Southern and Midwestern states. But they are nonetheless an indication that the religious right's days as a national movement are over.

On the marriage front, social conservatives have suffered a near-total rout, with their position in rapid retreat behind advancing legions of pro–gay marriage judges and ordinary citizens from around the country.

The shift on same-sex marriage has been so swift and dramatic, in fact, that social conservatives feel forced into a defensive crouch as they desperately seek to establish minimally favorable terms of surrender that permit them to persist in their traditionalism without facing legal sanction (under anti-discrimination law) or social ostracism.

And there you have it. Where once the religious right sought to inject a unified ideology of traditionalist Judeo-Christianity into the nation's politics, now it seeks merely to protect itself against a newly aggressive form of secular social liberalism. Sometimes that liberalism takes the relatively benign and amorphous form of an irreverent, sex-obsessed popular culture and public opinion that is unsympathetic to claims of religious truth. But at other times, it comes backed up by the coercive powers of government.

That's how the Hobby Lobby case needs to be understood: as a defensive response to the government attempting to regulate areas of life that it never previously sought to control. Like, for instance, the precise range of health-insurance benefits a business must provide to its employees under penalty of law. Hobby Lobby doesn't oppose contraception as such, as some Catholic businesses do. It merely opposes four out of 20 forms of contraception that the Obama administration wants to force them to cover — because its owners believe those four to be abortifacients.

From advancing an ideological project to transform America into an explicitly Catholic-Christian nation to asking that a business run by devout Christians be given a partial exemption from a government regulation that would force it to violate its beliefs — that's what the religious right has been reduced to in just 10 years.

I understand why progressives, and especially progressive women, would like every health insurance plan in America to cover every conceivable form of contraception. In a world where no one held traditionalist religious views, that might be possible. The same holds for a nation that didn't particularly care about protecting the religious freedom of its citizens. In such an illiberal nation, the government would get to dictate, without limits, precisely what benefits employers provide for employees.

But this isn't such a nation. And all of us, progressives included, should hope that it never becomes one.

Yes, the Hobby Lobby decision was in part a minor victory for social conservatives. But it was one half-step forward after more than a dozen consecutive steps back.

The religious right, as a coherent national movement, is dying fast. Liberals need to start thinking and acting like the victors they are instead of like the victims they once justly considered themselves to be.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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