Barton Swaim is author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics” and a contributing columnist for The Post.
A recent report on NPR began by noting that the arguments of many “conservative Christians” are “being challenged by changing views in society.” I wondered: Is there someone alive who doesn’t know that already? The story went on to explain that some “evangelicals” are embracing liberal social views and some aren’t — an observation made at least a thousand times before, and one entirely dependent on the nebulous descriptor “evangelical.”
One line in the story, though, stood out. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, remarked to the reporter: “We are on the losing side of a massive change that’s not going to be reversed, in all likelihood, in our lifetimes.” In Mohler’s view, the report went on, “Christians must adapt to the changed cultural circumstances by finding a way ‘to live faithfully in a world in which we’re going to be a moral exception.’ ”
Hold on. A high-profile Southern Baptist just conceded that his side lost the culture war. If I had been the reporter, that would have been the story. Yes, Mohler is still enunciating traditionalist views on marriage and sexual morality, views that many on the other side find anachronistic and thus repugnant. But he’s openly conceding that the cultural changes he laments won’t be reversed by some fictional silent majority.
Nor is Mohler alone. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has frequently made the same sort of cheerful concession. After the Supreme Court’s decision last year guaranteeing the right of same-sex couples to marry, Moore warned his co-religionists not to panic. Christianity “doesn’t need ‘family values’ to flourish,” he wrote in The Post. “In fact, the church often thrives when it is in sharp contrast to the cultures around it.”
That’s not what Jerry Falwell or James Dobson would have said. Absent is any vow to return the nation to its Judeo-Christian heritage or to “take America back.”
Hardened secularists, I imagine, will see only a rhetorical pivot in these and similar statements from religious conservatives. Mohler and Moore may now claim to relish the virtues of pluralism (so their critics may reason), but their rhetoric merely repackages the Moral Majoritarianism of 30 years ago.
I don’t think so. Ideological lines in U.S. politics are shifting and blurring rapidly: The rise of Donald Trump, the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the resurgence of libertarianism prove at least that much. It’s reasonable to assume that religious conservatives, too, are rethinking their role in American society and politics.
That rethinking probably began in earnest with Richard John Neuhaus’s book “The Naked Public Square” in 1984. Neuhaus, acknowledging pluralism as a hard reality rather than condemning it as a temporary deviation, nonetheless sharply criticized the idea that the public sphere can have nothing to do with religiously informed principles and arguments. In 1990, he founded the influential magazine First Things, in which Catholic, Protestant and Jewish intellectuals reflect on the role of religion in America’s rapidly fragmenting society.
More recently, Notre Dame historian George Marsden — a self-described “Augustinian Christian” and so something close to an evangelical, whatever that still means — has argued in his book “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment” that religious traditionalists and secularist liberals can avoid a great deal of acrimony by defenestrating the midcentury idea of a “neutral” public sphere and instead adopting what he and others have termed “principled pluralism.” More recently still, in his new book “The Fractured Republic,” the scholar and journalist Yuval Levin, a Jewish social conservative, has counseled both religious conservatives and secularist liberals that they can repair our dysfunctional politics by comprehending the implications of this one essential truth: that American society is no longer the consolidated unit it once was but a diffuse assortment of subcultures.
True, many religious social conservatives still think it’s their duty to take America back, their disposition expressed in the fierce eloquence of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). But many do not. Many have finally given up on the whole idea of a culture war or are willing to admit they lost it. They are determined only to remain who they are and to live as amiably and productively as they can in a culture that doesn’t look like them and doesn’t belong to them.
In time, this shift in outlook may bring about a more peaceable public sphere. But that will depend on others — especially the adherents of an ascendant social progressivism — declining to take full advantage of their newfound cultural dominance. I see few signs of that, but I am hopeful all the same.