"Today, after more than three decades of activism, many in the religious right are stepping back from the front lines," proclaimed a Wall Street Journal piece published last week, documenting an apparent "trend" of evangelical Christians stepping away from politics. The piece, framed as a profile of a "new" approach to activism by the Southern Baptist Convention's lead mouthpiece, Russell D. Moore, is just one of many pieces attempting to answer in the affirmative to a popular question: Is the religious right dying? As the current fight over Texas's controversial abortion laws indicates, the answer to that question is almost certainly no. But in the wake of Tea Party's plummeting post-shutdown approval ratings, it's certainly a tempting one, once again.
Last Thursday, for instance, Buzzfeed framed an otherwise good piece about evangelical uneasiness towards Pope Francis around the hyperbolic idea of "How The Pope Could Tear Apart The Religious Right." Aside from that, it's really an interesting piece, and you should read it for a quick history lesson on the tenuous relationship between conservative American Catholics and the politically-engaged power players of the evangelical right. Andrew Sullivan also took up the eulogy for the right in "The Decline And Fall Of Christianism," which takes some encouragement from the Journal profile and the Pope's recent comments against a political focus on issues like abortion and homosexuality. His conclusion:
We do not yet know what a more apolitical, Gospel-centered, life-centered Christianity will achieve, how popular it may be, or whether it will lead to higher levels of commitment to God than at present. But I suspect even Pope Benedict finally realized it is the only way forward – hence his resignation in the face of his papacy’s near-total failure. What matters now and always is truth, not usefulness, faith, not politics. The next generation gets this.
As we've urged before, it's always a good idea to pump the brakes on statements from religious conservatives on stepping away from politics, or issues like abortion and homosexuality. Because unless the speaker is specifically announcing a dogmatic shift, those statements are rarely what they seem to be, espeically to liberal ears. After all, even as Pope Francis tells Catholics to focus on poverty, and not politically popular social issues, he still affirms the church's unchanged conservative stance. And his statements don't represent an actual shift on the ground: American Catholic organizations are far from pulling out of the state-by-state fight on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Both religion journalist Sarah Posner and Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore have sounded alarms of caution for liberals over recent reports of the Religious Right's demise. Posner, for instance, writes that even evangelicals like Moore, currently calling for a lighter political touch "still see these as cultural issues, and still see their essential role as engagement in the public square as witnesses for (their view of) Christ’s teachings."
Likewise, the SBC's Moore disputes the Journal's characterization of his remarks. His response in the Christian Post is extremely useful here. "If anything, I'm calling for more engagement in the worlds of politics, culture, art, labor and so on," Moore writes. "It's just that this is a different sort of engagement. It's not a matter of pullback, but of priority." Moore goes on to outline that he's looking for Christian social engagement to become more like current evangelical anti-abortion activism, which has attracted substantial youth involvement:
What I'm calling for in our approach to political engagement is what we're already doing in one area: the pro-life movement. Evangelicals in the abortion debate have demonstrated convictional kindness in a holistic ethic of caring both for vulnerable unborn children and for the women who are damaged by abortion. The pro-life movement has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy that addresses, simultaneously, the need for laws to outlaw abortion, care for women in crisis pregnancies, adoption and foster care for children who need families, ministry to women (and men) who've been scarred by abortion, cultivating a culture that persuades others about why we ought to value human life, and the proclamation of the gospel to those whose consciences bear the guilt of abortion.
In other words, Moore is calling for Christians to circle back to a familiar concept: hate the sin, love the sinner. It's an idea heard more in evangelical church sermons than in heated political debates on controversial topics, and it's much more PR-friendly. Rather than asking Christians to dial down activism on social issues, Moore is asking adherents to take on a different tone, even while continuing to advocate for, say, the same controversial laws restricting women's access to abortion. This is the same attitude that pushed a wave of anti-abortion restrictions in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell trial: by relying on a Gospel-based approach, evangelical activists are hoping to set an example that the rest of America will take up. Moore, along with the rest of the religious right, is still hoping and pushing for a pretty literal "come to Jesus" moment, where the evangelical view on these issues becomes the only one. It's similar to a recent comment on the abortion fight by Paul Ryan: "our task isn't to purge our ranks. It's to grow them....We don't want a country where abortion is simply outlawed. We want a country where it isn't even considered," he said.
Even if Moore did speak for the entire Religious Right (which, as Posner notes, he most certainly does not), his take on evangelical engagement is far from a retreat. To hear that in Moore's remarks merely indicates the power of progressive wishful thinking.