The religious right has splintered, but hard times could bring it back.
For conservatives, 2008 is shaping up to be a year as baffling as it is dreadful. For Americans under 40, it seems incredible that the Republican platform should not be rooted in the moral assumptions of traditionally minded Christian groups allied with conservative economic stances and an aggressive foreign policy. And yet that familiar model fits none of the party's likely presidential candidates -- not evangelical Mike Huckabee, with his economic populism, or pro-choice and pro-gay rights Rudy Giuliani. Neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney convinces many people that his conversion to moralist positions is anything other than a matter of convenience.
Evangelical voters are deeply divided, and even religious voters who remain concerned about abortion and homosexuality are deeply unhappy about Iraq, charges of torture and runaway climate change. At least for the present, the dependable Republican coalition forged during the 1970s looks terminally ill.
These strains are easier to understand, however, if we recall how improbable the seemingly inevitable GOP coalition has always been. The alliances among the Republicans' diverse constituencies grew out of a particular set of historical circumstances.
The conservative coalition is the product of events that more or less coincided with the doom-laden presidency of Jimmy Carter. Between 1977 and 1980, even Americans of quite moderate views became desperately alarmed at the signs of social decay at home, the collapse of the nation's international standing and a hair-raising economic situation. This was the era of the Iran hostage crisis; of gasoline lines and surging inflation; of booming violent crime, urban decay and the worrying, fast transformation of sexual values. Not for the first time in American history, many voters saw the crisis in religious terms, as the consequence of a nation that had betrayed its divine mission.
Building on a widespread evangelical revival, religious conservatives mobilized a substantial voting bloc alarmed by what seemed like a literally apocalyptic situation. They preached the necessity of rebuilding America's defenses and restraining the liberal government that they held guilty of causing many undesirable changes. Although these ideas had broad appeal, conservative religious believers offered a rock-solid electoral foundation through the Reagan years and beyond.
Yet for all its power, the conservative coalition always had some odd and even unnatural alignments. Instead of asking why the alliance now seems troubled, we should rather ask how it survived as long as it did.
After all, there was no natural reason why the lower- and middle-income people who faithfully attend evangelical churches should favor the free-trade policies that have over the last quarter of a century wiped out much of the U.S. manufacturing base. Ordinary evangelical voters are disproportionately unlikely to be represented in the sectors of the economy that have boomed most conspicuously in recent years -- finance and high-tech, services and information. It was only a matter of time before religious believers started asking where their true interests might lie. Politically, evangelicals are up for grabs. Remember when commentators discovered such strange creatures as the Reagan Democrats? Perhaps this will be the year of Obama Republicans or even Hillary's megachurches.
But before we hold a funeral for the Reagan coalition, we should note how easily the circumstances of the late 1970s could repeat themselves. Already, looking at inflation rates and oil prices, journalists are drawing comparisons with the events of 1979-1980 and projecting a recession at least as bad as those years.
Now remember two things. First, there was no single issue or grievance that drove religious believers to the conservative banner. Rather, it was a generalized sense of threat to traditional ideals of community and family, and above all, the undermining of gender roles. Conservative rhetoric did a wonderful job of promising to restore traditional manliness by shoring up the family at home and reasserting American strength abroad.
Second, the real beneficiaries of Carter's 1976 victory turned out to be the Republicans, who managed to avoid blame for the problems of the late '70s.
Now imagine the potential reaction against any Democratic administration elected this November. Suppose 2009-2010 brings us a recession and fiscal chaos, coupled with military withdrawal and retrenchment overseas. Once more, we could hear complaints about threatened families and communities at home, of national debility overseas, of the United States again becoming what Richard Nixon called "a pitiful, helpless giant." And as in earlier eras of chaos and confusion, people would likely turn to those religious institutions that seem to offer hope and solidity. Quite possibly, we would be set for a new era of religious-based conservatism, in which the politics of military and moral reconstruction coincided neatly.
In 2008, the religious right may appear to be dying, but it could just be going into hibernation.
Philip Jenkins is the author of many books including "Decade of Nightmares: The End of the 1960s and the Making of Eighties America."
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times