A Post-Religious Right America?

Print More

Just after John McCain anointed Sarah Palin as his veep choice, the estimable Alan Wolfe was up on the New Republic website explaining how the Western evangelical world of which Palin seemed to be a part is a good deal more libertarian than the morally hard-edged and prescriptive evangelicalism of the East–thereby suggesting that liberals should chill out a little. As enthusiastic as I am for the making of regional religious distinctions, the evidence that’s come to light in the succeeding days indicates that Palin’s evangelical world is a far cry from the New Agenda evangelicalism of Rick Warren and Fuller Seminary. From the sermons of her pastors to the wedge politics she brought to her mayoralty, she represents the religious right approach to public life that the main media narrative–encouraged by the likes of E.J. Dionne, Amy Sullivan, and Jim Wallis–has represented as, well, sooo nineties. Whatever else it’s done, Palin’s ascendancy has reinvigorated an evangelical old guard that was grumpy and back on its heels. Richard Land and James Dobson can barely contain themselves, and are ready to party like it’s 1994.
Indeed, Palin is the first movement evangelical ever to occupy a place on a GOP national ticket since the emergence of the religious right as an appanage of the Republican Party in 1980. By comparison, George Bush was a johnny-come-lately whose understanding of how to woo evangelicals derived from his experience doing so for his daddy’s 1988 campaign. Tony Perkins is not just blowing smoke when he tells the NYT’s David Kirkpatrick, “I am now more confident about a John McCain presidency than I am about a George Bush presidency.” Palin is truly one of them.
It’s pretty clear that John McCain didn’t want to run the kind of Rovian campaign that now lies before us. He’d have preferred one based on a secular neocon vision of a trans-partisan America on the march to defeat the bad guys of the world. That would have been the storyline had he been able to select Joe Lieberman as his running mate, and it’s what made for the cognitive dissonance of Lieberman’s speech to the Convention last night. A party activated by unreconstructed political evangelicalism is not one equipped to reach out to the other side. The question, of course, is whether the Palinized McCain campaign represents the last hurrah of the religious right–its Battle of the Bulge, as it were (sorry, Bristol)–or just the next chapter in the longest running social movement in American history.