Last week The New Republic’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote an extended pre-mortem not just for Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign but for the culture wars in general. Tracing the rise of Huckabee’s political career to the rise of the religious Right, she tries to use Huckabee’s career as a stand-in for the fortunes of religious conservatism writ large. To Bruenig, a Huckabee defeat will represent “one more [conservative] loss in a greater, longer defeat in America’s culture wars.”
I agree with Bruenig that Mike Huckabee will probably lose, but I come to the exact opposite conclusion about the culture wars. A Huckabee primary loss — which will happen entirely because of his more liberal record on taxing and spending — is a sign of religious conservative strength. With every single candidate in the Republican field vowing to protect life and religious liberty, and with every single candidate highlighting the plight of the persecuted church overseas, religious conservatives aren’t reduced to voting for the “most overtly Christian” candidate to make their voices heard in the culture war. When Mike Huckabee loses the Republican primary, he’ll be defeated by another pro-life, pro–religious liberty candidate — but one who probably has a stronger conservative economic record or better national-security credentials. How is that a sign of religious-conservative weakness?
For some time now, I’ve been decrying culture war defeatism, defeatism that’s mostly centered around the repressive leftist response to the same-sex marriage debate. A longer view, however, tells a much different tale — one of remarkable cultural resilience, persistent cultural strength, and miraculous acts of culture-building even in the face of extreme elite hostility. In many ways, Mike Huckabee’s political career is a victim of religious-conservative success, not a marker of its failure.
Mike Huckabee’s political career is a victim of religious-conservative success, not a marker of its failure.
The Protestant Christian community was largely contained in the vast mainline denominations — churches that were already shrinking, already losing their theological moorings, and thus ill-equipped for mounting any kind of coherent response to the sexual revolution. Even the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights. Marriage was changing, life was held cheap, and the institutional church was failing. Aside from the tiny “fundamentalist” denominations, the Left not only controlled the elite culture, it was capturing the church itself.
What followed, however, was a religious sea change in the United States, with a regenerated church re-engaging in the public square to transform a cultural rout into a true cultural conflict. The Left has lost as many battles as it has won in this war, and religious conservatism has not only thoroughly mainstreamed itself but in many key respects dominates one of America’s two great political parties.
The Left has suffered loss after loss on matters of life and liberty.
Thanks to my friend Joe Carter’s excellent research, it’s easy to contrast the catastrophic decline of mainline Protestantism with the extraordinary growth of the Evangelical church. On the spiritual left, between 1965 and 2012, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) lost 67 percent of its members. Between 1965 and 2012, the United Church of Christ (President Obama’s Church) lost 52 percent. Between 1966 and 2013, the Episcopal Church suffered a 49 percent decline. The United Methodist Church lost 33 percent in a similar timeframe. All told, there was a net loss of more than 10 million members, against the backdrop of substantial American population growth.
Contrast this with the astounding growth of more conservative churches. During equivalent time periods, the Church of God in Christ grew 1,194 percent, my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) grew 790 percent, the Assemblies of God grew 490 percent, and the Southern Baptist Church reversed its liberalizing momentum and grew 46 percent from 1965 to 2013 — from 10,770,573 to 15,735,640. New churches grew out of almost nothing to become larger and far more culturally potent than the declining mainline.And this growth corresponded with, first, the creation of a separate religious conservative movement (the Moral Majority; the Christian Coalition) and then, second, the integration of that movement into the Republican party — the only party not to wholeheartedly join the sexual revolution. And we witnessed an interesting evolution in Republican presidential candidates as well, from fields where the “religious-right candidate” was obvious and abortion was a matter of heated debate to entire slates of candidates who express uniformly pro-life views.
The Left, of course, pushed forward with its own cultural agenda, but aside from its current success in same-sex marriage, it has suffered loss after loss on matters of life and liberty. Pro-life legislation proliferates, abortion clinics are closing, and the state of religious-liberty jurisprudence is vastly preferable to where it was in the 1970s, when it was an actual open question whether Christian groups could meet in empty public-university classrooms.
So, no, the culture war isn’t over. In fact, the playing field is more level than it has been in decades. And religious conservatives are hardly in retreat. They’re so strong, in fact, that most will feel entirely comfortable voting against Mike Huckabee, secure in the knowledge that many other candidates probably mirror their political and cultural values (including on economic matters) better even than the Southern Baptist pastor from Arkansas.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer for National Review.