The American culture wars are over and the religious right has lost.
If you aren’t quite awake to the magnitude of the defeat yet, Van Winkles everywhere, that’s perhaps because you haven’t read an article posted last Friday on the Telegraph website and titled “US religious Right concedes defeat.” Who does the writer choose as a spokesperson for the entire movement? Dr. James Dobson, recently retired head of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.
Leading evangelicals have admitted that their association with George W. Bush has not only hurt the cause of social conservatives but contributed to the failure of the key objectives of their 30-year struggle.
James Dobson, 72, who resigned recently as head of Focus on the Family — one of the largest Christian groups in the country — and once denounced the Harry Potter books as witchcraft, acknowledged the dramatic reverse for the religious Right in a farewell speech to staff.
‘We tried to defend the unborn child, the dignity of the family, but it was a holding action,” he said.
“We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”
While Dobson has a following — his radio show, which he is continuing after retirement, is heard by an estimated 1.5 million listeners — he is the only “leading evangelical” quoted in this article. His public opposition to then-candidate Barack Obama, and his sometime provocative rhetoric make him a rather high-profile one, but not by any means can his opinions be said to represent all “evangelicals.”
After a paragraph in which writer Alex Spillius, like Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, gives a grim picture of defeats suffered by conservative Christians in recent “culture wars,” he has these slightly histrionic paragraphs:
Though the struggle will go on, the confession of Mr Dobson, who started his ministry from scratch in 1977, came amid growing concern that church attendance in the United States is heading the way of Britain, where no more than ten per cent worship every week.
Unease is rising that a nation founded — in the view of evangelicals — purely as a Christian country will soon, like northern Europe, become “post-Christian”.
Recent surveys have suggested that the American religious landscape has shifted significantly. A study by Trinity College in Connecticut found that 11 per cent fewer Americans identify themselves as Christian than 20 years ago. Those stating no religious affiliation or declaring themselves agnostic has risen from 8.2 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2008.
Heading the way of Great Britain? We aren’t there quite yet, folks.
The Trinity College survey, which you can find analyzed and linked to to in this article by Washington Post writer Michelle Boorstein, has some very interesting results. But as Trinity College’s Mark Silk asserts, these survey results show that the evangelical ranks are growing. GetReligionistas have said again and again that there is confusion (including, if one can judge by these results, among evangelicals themselves) over what constitutes an evangelical. While the number of self-declared Christians has declined, the survey doesn’t forecast the impending death of conservative Christianity.
Later in the article Spillius refers to an article by Michael Spencer he claims has “become a touchstone for dissaffected conservatives.” Check this one out for yourself, if you haven’t seen it — Spillius doesn’t give readers any proof that it has become a cornerstone for fearful conservatives. It’s hard to see why a piece that seems more like a collage of incendiary predictions would have gone viral.
Infighting among conservative Christians is a sexy topic — and it is probably going on. There is considerable infighting going on in many segments of America’s religious populations. But what both Meacham and Spillius appear to assume that a decline in political influence equals defeat for religious conservatives. In his response to Meacham’s essay last week, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Moehler argues instead that his main concern is evangelism, not cultural influence. It’s a loss to the article that Spillius didn’t talk to Moehler and a few thoughtful analysts. By beginning with James Dobson and ending by quoting writer Michael Spencer’s “apocalypse soon” rant, he leaves readers adrift in a fiery sea of rhetoric, without any land in sight.
The “Christian flag” still flies at Colorado’s Focus on the Family — this picture is taken from Wikimedia Commons