Religious right splits: Hucksters say double down; true believers want to try something new

The religious right — with the support of a huge majority of white evangelicals across America — got hammered on Election Day.

It was, as Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler said, “an evangelical disaster.” In ballot measures in four states, the religious right vigorously opposed marriage equality. It lost all four. The president whose re-election the religious right opposed won a second term with a solid majority of the popular vote and an electoral landslide. Many of the most vocal supporters of the religious right’s agenda lost congressional elections. And across the country, polls and ballots both confirmed that the central issues for the religious right — criminalizing abortion and restricting LGBT rights — weren’t just on the losing side, but were important causes of that loss.

NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty summarizes the scope and scale of the religious right’s defeat:

Mohler says white evangelicals moved in lockstep: Seventy-nine percent voted for Republican Mitt Romney, the same percentage as voted for President George W. Bush in 2004. He says they boldly telegraphed their concerns about Obama, and “our message was rejected by millions of Americans who went to the polls and voted according to a contrary worldview.”

“I think the messaging was working,” said Frank Schubert of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, “we just didn’t have enough of it.” (AP file photo by Diane Bondareff)

Mohler says there’s a danger that evangelicals won’t see this larger lesson — that they will say Obama won because of his unique story and personality.

“No, it was far more than that,” he says. “Four states dealt with the issue of same-sex marriage and after 31 to 33 straight victories, we’ve been handed a rather comprehensive set of defeats on the issue of the integrity of marriage.”

That, and the legalization of marijuana in some states, are examples of what Mohler calls “a seismic moral shift in the culture.”

Others say 2012 revealed another shift.

“The understanding that the evangelical vote is a kingmaking vote, I think, is now dead,” says Shaun Casey, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary and a former Obama adviser. He says evangelicals pulled out all the stops to unseat the president.

“Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association bought full-page ads in newspapers; that made no difference,” he says. “Ralph Reed spent tens of millions of dollars getting out the vote in battleground states; that didn’t make the difference. And you add all of that up, and it was not enough because of the changing demographics of our country.”

How, then, should the religious right respond to this “comprehensive set of defeats” and the “seismic moral shift” it signifies?

Broadly speaking, the hucksters of the religious right are advocating one response while the true believers of the religious right are advocating another.

The hucksters are urging their followers, supporters and partisan patrons to double down on all the same things they’ve been doing all along. They want the same stances, same agenda, same strategies, same tone — but a different result. That different result, they say, will come from doing all the very same things even harder. There’s no evidence that would work, but the hucksters don’t measure success by political outcomes. They measure success by fundraising outcomes — and an Obama win was probably more potentially lucrative for them than a Romney win would have been.

The true believers, on the other hand, seem to realize that more of the same approach won’t produce the societal changes they had hoped for. They’ve begun re-evaluating their political tactics, agenda and tone, considering if there might not be a better, more effective way of advancing the values they care about.

Every response to the election that I’ve seen falls into one of those two categories: Double down vs. something new. We’ll look at more specific examples in future posts, and we’ll examine some of the options being discussed as the “something new” toward which some on the religious right are stumbling.

Here’s a hint of that direction from Jim Daly of Focus on the Family. Daly is an intriguing fellow — a true believer who has taken the helm of a huge operation created by a huckster. Mitchell Landsberg of the Los Angeles Times reports that Daly has taken on a “conciliatory tone after election”:

Daly threw the considerable resources of his organization — which fiercely opposes abortion and same-sex marriage — behind the campaign to defeat President Obama, paying for millions of mailers that listed the presidential candidates’ positions on issues that were important to “values voters.”

In the aftermath of the election, however, Daly is willing to say things that few conservative evangelical leaders are likely to say. He believes, for instance, that the Christian right lost the fight against same-sex marriage in four states in part because it is on the losing side of a cultural paradigm. He says the evangelical community should have been considering immigration reform years ago, “but we were led more by political-think than church-think.”

And, along the same lines, he argues that evangelicals have made a mistake by marching in lock step with the Republican Party.

“If the Christian message has been too wrapped around the axle of the Republican Party, then a) that’s our fault, and b) we’ve got to rethink that.”

For a classic example of the “double down” approach preferred by the hucksters, see the conclusion of Erik Eckholm’s New York Times article, “Push Expands for Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage“:

Frank Schubert, a consultant to the National Organization for Marriage who managed all four state campaigns to block same-sex marriage, said, “I think the messaging was working; we just didn’t have enough of it.” He said he expected to continue running advertisements warning that “changing the definition of marriage” would have negative effects on society.

But Zach Silk, the campaign manager of Washington United for Marriage, an advocate for same-sex marriage rights, argued that what he called “scare tactics” had fallen flat this time, and he predicted they would probably fail again. “The fear and confusion they used to win in other places, it’s an old playbook and it doesn’t work any more.”

It’s fascinating to see people like Mohler and Daly essentially agreeing with Zach Silk that the “old playbook” the religious right has relied on for decades just “doesn’t work any more.”

But I’m also seeing far more people agreeing with NOM’s Schubert, insisting that the fear and confusion Silk describes — what Schubert calls “the messaging” — is still working for the religious right, but they just have to do more of it.

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