How social conservatives became a minority in need of protection
During the Bush era, the religious right was ascendant and scarily intolerant. Now the same can be said of the secular left.
Thirteen years ago, I was a committed social conservative, recently hired as an editor at First Things, a monthly magazine devoted to bringing traditionalist religion into American public life for the purpose of overthrowing the liberal secularism that had been growing in power and influence since the 1960s.
Though I was skeptical about some aspects of the magazine's agenda, I was broadly sympathetic with its goals. At least until I saw them guiding White House policy. I opposed the Iraq War before it started and found particularly outrageous the theologically tinged arguments the magazine published in support of it. I dissented from the sexism that pervaded the magazine's offices and permeated its pages. I changed my mind on same-sex marriage, eventually becoming persuaded by Andrew Sullivan's conservative case for allowing gay couples to marry — and feeling disgust at the Bush administration's support for a constitutional amendment banning such arrangements.
Underlying all of these changes was a more fundamental shift in my thinking. I still supported allowing traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other believers a seat at the table of public discussion and debate. But I began to see that the magazine's editor in chief (Richard John Neuhaus) and his closest collaborators (Michael Novak, George Weigel, Robert P. George) had something more radical in mind. They didn't want a seat at the table. They wanted to take control of the table, relegating secular liberals to minority status and, in turn, actively excluding them from positions of social, cultural, and political power in the United States.
That's precisely what the administration of George W. Bush looked to be doing, especially during his polarizing campaign for re-election in 2004.
Roughly one month after Bush's victory in that election, I signed up with Doubleday to write a book that would announce my break from the religious right and tell the story of how this small group of Catholic intellectuals had developed an ideology that aimed to place secular America under siege.
That book — The Theocons — gave me a reputation. The right saw me as a traitor — a Benedict Arnold, a Judas — who had betrayed my boss, the conservative movement, and perhaps even God himself. Liberals, on the other hand, welcomed me as an ally with scary and politically useful stories to tell.
That reputation held until quite recently, when my sometimes severe criticism of liberals and defense of traditionalist religious believers led to a change. Liberals are now much more likely to attack or ignore me, whereas conservatives — sometimes the same ones who denounced me less than a decade ago — offer words of praise.
Perhaps the most amusing comment I've received in recent weeks came from a friend familiar with my ideological evolution: "Are you really a Hobby Lobbyist? I didn't expect that."
So what gives? Have I shifted ideologically yet again? Am I reverting to conservative type? Do I want to repudiate my repudiation of the religious right? Will I soon disown The Theocons and rejoin the right?
The answer to all these questions is no.
I haven't changed. The country has.
When Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority back in 1979, he was expressing more of a hope than a reality. Conservative and fundamentalist evangelical Protestants made up about a quarter of the population. Neuhaus's genius was to recognize that evangelicals alone weren't going to have any luck turning back the counterculture and sexual revolution. To accomplish that goal, they would have to join forces with traditionalists in other denominations.
In The Naked Public Square and other books, Neuhaus drew on the social encyclicals of Pope John Paul II to develop a "theoconservative" ideology that would encourage traditionalist evangelicals to join with like-minded Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims in pursuing a social conservative agenda of rolling back the cultural legacy of the 1960s. Whereas conservative evangelicals fell far short of constituting a majority, this interdenominational and interreligious coalition of traditionalist believers just might contain enough members to cross that crucial demographic threshold — especially when joined in alliance with less religious voters who were nonetheless troubled by the sexual revolution and its aftermath.
Bush's 51 percent "values voters" victory in November 2004 was as close as the theocons ever came to realizing their dream.
In retrospect, it was the high-water mark of a movement on the verge of collapse, not the advent of a new, more socially conservative era in American politics and culture. By the time The Theocons was published, in September 2006, Bush was in a downward spiral that would have him leaving office with approval ratings hovering around 30 percent. In 2008, Republicans nominated John McCain, longtime antagonist of the religious right, while social conservatives had to make do with silly Sarah Palin, whose presence on the ticket ended up hurting more than helping. The party's 2012 nominee and his running mate barely mentioned social issues at all.
Perhaps most significantly, Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage while running for re-election, and it did nothing to hurt his prospects. On the contrary, support for gay marriage reached majority status at almost the exact moment (May 2012) that Obama flipped sides. Since then, hardly a month has gone by without a state legislature approving same-sex marriage or a court knocking down state and federal strictures against it (many of which were passed with the Bush campaign's encouragement and backing during the 2004 election cycle).
America has turned a corner in the culture wars, and there's no going back.
Two generations removed from the 1960s, a majority of Americans have made their peace with sexual modernity. Which means that for the first time traditionalist religious believers are indisputably a minority — and one that, over time, appears destined to become ever smaller.
Liberals usually pride themselves on defending minority rights against the tyranny of the majority — and above all when the tyranny threatens to become more than metaphorical through the use of the coercive powers of the government. Yet when it comes to the rights of religious traditionalists, many liberals seem indifferent, and more than a few seem overtly hostile.
That's what I've been calling out in my recent controversial columns — about Brendan Eich, about Hobby Lobby, about stupid New York Times op-eds. When the theocons threatened to turn secular liberals into a persecuted minority, I objected. And now, with gay rights activists treating social conservatives like heretics and federal regulators threatening to force religious traditionalists to violate their consciences, I'm doing the same.
To which my stock response is: Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying — because that's what liberalism is, or should be, all about. Toleration is perfectly compatible with — indeed, it presupposes — disagreement. That's why it's called tolerance and not endorsement or affirmation.
Reading the irate responses to the Hobby Lobby decision, I get the feeling that some liberals not-so-secretly long to see social conservatives suffer for the sin of upholding sexual teachings that clash with liberal norms.
I'm sorry, but that's not a liberal sentiment, no matter how many so-called liberals express it. It resembles nothing so much as the outlook of a religious inquisitor out to enforce doctrinal purity and conformity. That the content of the doctrine is liberal matters less than the furious, sadistic drive to impose it on dissenters.
I recognize that drive. I saw it up close in the early years of the last decade, and even felt it in myself from time to time. The urge to liberate myself from it is what precipitated my break from the theocons. From that time forward, I've consistently defended tolerance — first against the religious right, and now against overzealous secular liberals.
As I said, I'm not the one who's changed.