Why the white evangelical religious right can no longer presume to claim moral superiority

Why the white evangelical religious right can no longer presume to claim moral superiority November 8, 2012

The religious right is frightened and angry after Tuesday’s election.

That’s not really news, since the religious right was frightened and angry before Tuesday’s election. Frightened and angry is pretty much what the religious right is like every day.

But this quasi-religious political movement is back on its heels now. After decades of lucrative success that transformed America’s politics and deformed American evangelicalism, the religious right was confronted Tuesday with evidence that its strategy is no longer working. The problem is not just that they lost in this election — that the president they demonized was convincingly re-elected, the legislative candidates they championed were resoundingly sent packing, and the ballot initiatives they rallied behind all went against them.

That happens with elections sometimes. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That, by itself, doesn’t necessarily mean that something fundamental is no longer operative.

The problem for the religious right is not that they lost, but how they lost and why they lost.

The religious right lost because they are no longer perceived as having the moral high ground. For decades, the religious right has been pre-occupied with two issues above all else: abortion and homosexuality. And on both of those issues, they have wielded power and influence by claiming the moral high ground — claiming to represent the godly, “biblical” truth of right and wrong. Anyone who disagreed with them on these issues was portrayed as less moral, less godly, less good.

That claim — that framing of these issues as right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, biblical vs. unbiblical, moral vs. immoral — was asserted and accepted for most of the religious right’s 30-year run.

But not any more. That claim is still being asserted, but it is no longer being accepted.

Part of what happened on Tuesday was that millions of people rejected that claim on moral grounds. This was not just a political or pragmatic disagreement that preserved their essential claim of godly morality. It was a powerful counter-claim — the claim that the religious right is advocating immoral, unjust and cruelly unfair policies on both of its hallmark issues. Knee-jerk opposition to legal abortion and to gay rights weren’t just rejected as bad policy, but as bad morals — as being on the wrong side of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, biblical vs. unbiblical, moral vs. immoral.

When Franklin Graham took out full-page newspaper ads declaring that “there are profound moral issues at stake” in this election, voters agreed with that much of his argument. Voters thought Graham was right that this argument about “the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman” is a “profound moral issue,” but they believed that Graham himself was profoundly wrong — that his opposition to marriage equality put him on the wrong side of a moral issue.

Voters in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington all rejected Graham’s opposition to marriage equality, not because it was too lofty a moral claim, or too sectarian in its “biblical” concerns, but because it was immoral, oppressive, unfair, unjust, unethical, unkind and unrighteous.

This makes for a new and fundamentally different argument. For decades, the religious right has been arguing that their purchase on the moral high ground ought to result in their political triumph. The political opposition to that used to be a form of “yes, but …” — yes, these political preachers are correct about morality and immorality, but other factors need to be considered, or other complications have to be accounted for, etc.

Opposition to the religious right’s agenda on Tuesday did not take the form of this “yes, but …” argument. It was simply, “No.”

It was not a disagreement about the political implications of the preachers’ righteous moral claims, but a denial of those claims, of their righteousness and of their morality. No, these political preachers are incorrect about morality and immorality. No, pretending that some “biblical definition of marriage” is a pretext for denying people their rights or delegitimizing their families is not good or decent or right. No, legal coercion compelling rape victims to bear the offspring of their attackers is not good or decent or right.

And that cuts to the core of the matter. That isn’t just a single defeat in a single election, but a fundamental rejection of the entire basis for why anyone, anywhere should ever listen to the religious right.

The religious right can no longer simply assert and assume that it has the moral high ground. If it wants to make that claim, it will have to argue for it, will have to explain why its absolute opposition to legal abortion and to civil rights for LGBT people is right or true or good.

I think of the religious right, broadly speaking, as divided between two groups: True believers and hucksters. They true believers have become unaccustomed to having to explain why they believe what they believe. The hucksters — disingenuous, bad-faith actors in it for the money, the power and the perks — have never been interested in or capable of explaining that.

But that explanation is now required. It will no longer suffice for the religious right simply to assert that everybody knows that marriage equality is immoral, because everybody does not know that. Many of us claim to know the opposite, in fact — we are saying that opposition to marriage equality is immoral. If the religious right wants to convince us otherwise, it will have to do just that — convince us, providing arguments, data, reason and reasons.

It won’t do for the religious right simply to continue wielding the word “biblical” like a club. President Obama quoted the Bible in declaring his support for marriage equality. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe cites the Bible more often and more specifically than any of his religious-right opponents bother to do.

The ground has shifted. The religious right has backed losing candidates before and has occasionally lost ballot initiatives too. But this loss wasn’t due to other issues — the economy, a war — eclipsing the significance of their “values” issues. This loss wasn’t due to any evasive “yes, but …” arguments from the other side.

The other side met them toe-to-toe: You want to argue about abortion on moral grounds? Great, let’s do that. We say your opposition to legal abortion is immoral, and here’s why. You want to argue about the morality of same-sex marriage? Fine. We say your opposition to marriage equality is immoral, and here’s why.

The religious right wasn’t prepared for that response. You could see that throughout the election, as they continued to rely on attack-lines that had served them so well in the past. They repeatedly characterized President Obama as the “most pro-choice president of all time,” expecting him to cringe and deny the suggestion. Instead, he embraced it — running ads saying the same thing and insisting that it was true because defending women’s right to make their own choices is the right thing to do. They attacked Obama for his association with women like Sandra Fluke, as though they were somehow self-evidently immoral. Obama embraced them, figuratively and literally, insisting that doing so was the right thing to do. The religious right spent years accusing Obama of secretly favoring same-sex marriage and he responded by openly and forcefully supporting same-sex marriage, declaring that it was the right thing to do.

The religious right didn’t just lose an election or a ballot initiative, it lost an argument. It lost the argument because it wasn’t used to having to make an argument — wasn’t accustomed to encountering a forceful argument coming back at it from the other side.

The other side won the argument, and in so doing, it seized the moral high ground.

The full meaning of this still hasn’t sunk in for many of the leaders on the religious right. They can’t imagine that anyone may have begun to doubt the legitimacy of their long-presumed moral superiority.

What is going on with the American people?” Pat Robertson asked, utterly perplexed.

“Race and ethnicity overrode values,” said Matt Staver of Liberty Counsel (still unable to see how his bigoted assumptions about the immorality of those people taint the reception of every other moral claim he makes).

The Liar Tony Perkins is in full “Turn those machines back on!” mode, unable to do anything more than just keep repeating the same failed assertions. The marriage equality votes in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, he said, were “a significant moment for the radical Left, which was helped to victory by the most pro-gay president in American history.”

Perkins is still operating under the assumption that calling someone “pro-gay” implies a moral deficiency on that person’s part. Most people don’t agree. We’ve been having quite a national conversation on this subject for the past several decades and most of us have come around to regarding a title like “the most pro-gay President in American history” as a badge of honor — as high praise for this president’s morality, values, principles and commitment to justice.

Robertson, Staver and Perkins are all hucksters. What about the true believers? Southern Baptist Archbishop Al Mohler is someone I think of as a true believer on the religious right, and he’s one of the few figures in the movement who seems to realize that their presumption of moral superiority is no longer widely accepted.

As election returns came in Tuesday night, Mohler tweeted: “There is no evidence in voting patterns that President Obama’s evolution’ on same-sex marriage cost him anything. Another revealing truth.”

Mohler also referred to the marriage equality votes as a sign “we are witnessing a fundamental moral realignment of the country.” Unlike Perkins and Robertson, he seems to grasp what he’s seeing and hearing — that Americans aren’t just failing to embrace his denunciation of LGBT families as immoral, but Americans are actually denouncing him as immoral for opposing such families.

David Sessions finds a few other voices from the anti-gay, anti-abortion religious right who also seem to be “Smelling the Coffee.”

“We must face the reality that we may be on the losing side of the culture war,” Southern Baptist pollster Ed Stetzer writes.

This loss did not occur in Tuesday’s election — the election was simply a powerful demonstration that the loss is occurring. Much, much more to say about this, so we’ll return to this topic in future posts.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Woooow. Okay. I take back what I said about food and not losing shit.

    This even beats the Harry Potter fandom’s weirder factions.

  • Lliira

    The people who seceded in the U.S. Civil War were the ultra-privileged white slaveholders. They didn’t do the fighting; they sent the (poor white) agrarians and workers to die for them, and the agrarians and workers were NOT happy about it. They despised and distrusted slave owners. Unfortunately, most of them despised and distrusted black people more. And also, if you’ll be shot if you don’t shoot at the people who are shooting at you and your friends, most people’s tendency is to fall in line. The ancient myth of heroism in war — the old lie, Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori — that the South so fetishized also helped the slave masters’ despicable cause.

    Now, black agrarian workers had been at war for over a century already, and that probably helped stir up the over-privileged rapists who thought they owned them to turn traitor, but the actual secessionists were the Donald Trumps of the country.

  • The reaction of many Republicans to the recent election reminds me of the reaction of apocalypse cultists when their end-of-the-world date comes and goes:  they’ve pumped so many material and psychological resources into being True Believers that they can’t just accept that they were wrong, and that their leaders were either likewise wrong or intentionally duping them.  To keep their entire worldview from collapsing like the house of cards it is, they have to double down.

    How do you help someone like that?

  • LMM22 says that liberals and conservatives seem to have different ethical philosophies. There’s actually some scientific evidence to back this up:

    Human beings, across cultures and
    throughout history, seem to share a few core ethical values, hard-wired
    into our brains by millions of years of evolution as a social species.
    Those values: Fairness, harm and the avoidance thereof, loyalty,
    authority, and purity. (Some think there may be one or two others,
    including liberty and honesty; but those aren’t yet as
    well-substantiated, or as well-studied.)

    Liberals prioritize very
    different values from conservatives. When asked a series of questions
    about different ethical situations, self-described liberals strongly
    tend to prioritize fairness and harm as the most important of these core
    values — while self-described conservatives are more likely to
    prioritize authority, loyalty, and purity.

    Source: “Why Liberal Values Really Are Better“, by Greta Christina.

  • George Lakoff also wrote on this matter and had some interesting insights as well.

  • Tricksterson

    “Romney:  He Can’t Even Get Feudalism Right”

  • Tricksterson

    And yet, a couplefew years ago whne a Muslim Representative was elected someone tried to insist that he pledge his oath on the Bible instead of the Koran.  Won’t be surprised if someone brings that up for the Hindu and Buddhist who were elected this year.

  • Nice work.  I must admit, I pretty much hadn’t thought of any of that when I opened that can of worms; I was just thinking of the straightforward famine-related unrest.

    BTW, I don’t know “food deserts”.  Assuming it isn’t a typo for “desserts”, what is that?

  • EllieMurasaki

    No grocery stores easily accessible, more or less. Convenience stores are not grocery stores.

  • Jenny Islander

    Yes, it’s a description of a place where people eat fast food and ramen because the nearest store that offers fresh food is not a feasible place to shop for the residents.  

    An example that sticks in my mind is that a significant percentage of children and pregnant and nursing women who qualify for WIC don’t get the fresh milk and eggs and fruit and cheese that the program is supposed to guarantee, because getting that food requires (a) standing at the bus stop in all weathers with the kids because there is no child care available, (b) riding two buses ditto, (c) shepherding the kids through the store ditto, (d) going back the other way with the kids and the fresh food when there is no money for an insulated backpack or a wheelie cart (if the bus even allows those on board), and (e) having somewhere to store it assuming that you get it home undamaged and unspoiled.

  • OK, thanks.  I thought it might be either that, or the larger-scale problem of areas where not much food is grown, and so trying to buy locally grown food is more difficult.  E.g. in the middle of a desert environment, like I am, which helped it come to mind.

  • Wednesday


    The criteria for being a food desert are different for rural and urban areas, too. Some parts of the country with incredibly fertile soil and many farms are food deserts — access is curtailed geographically because a town of 100 people can’t support a full grocery store, and just because farmers in the general area are growing something doesn’t mean you have an easy way to get it.

    A friend of mine who lives in one of these rural food deserts is working on developing a local distribution system to improve access to local products. Right now, if you want to get food from the local farmers, you need to either go to all the farms or CSA drop-offs individually or live near one of the “big” population centers (eg, a town of 5K) that can support a food co-op in addition to a traditional grocery store.

  •  You make a lot of assumptions about what evangelism is that simply are not true. Evangelism is sharing your faith with those who would listen. Pure and Simple. It is NOT Forcing one’s beliefs down someone else’s throats! Never has been! People have just been doing it wrong!

  •  See my response to Lliira about evangelism. You are making assumptions about evangelism that just aren’t what evangelicalism is about! Unfortunately Evangelicals are to blame for that assumption. What Jesus had in mind for sharing the good news was much much different than what Evangelicals have made of it!

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    It’s not like the new/old name, Democratic Republic of the Congo, doesn’t push every possible button for his set (commie, check, African, check). Was Mobutu, like Charles Taylor, a good friend of Pat’s?

    Yes. They were partners in a corrupt venture to fleece donations meant for refugees for their diamond mining business. When the US finally pulled its head out of its arse and denied Mobutu a visa to visit (i.e. when the Republicans left the White House), Robertson lobbied for the decision to be overturned.

    Because, hey, Mobutu’s a great guy. Dictator, human rights abuser, the epitome of corruption, but in Reagan’s words “a voice of good sense and goodwill”.

  • So, two things.

    First: good on you for not endorsing forcing beliefs on people! I encourage this.

    Second: Quoting the New Testament is no more a definitive argument about the nature of evangelism than it is about the nature of marriage, or love, or sin, or morality, or political power, or right action.

  • Tricksterson

    True but you have to admit there are a lot of evangelicals, and they are very vocal about it, wh define evangelicalism in the negative fashion you’ve described.  Llira may be wrong but it’s hardly without reason.

  • Turcano

    No, the “durr wuts a jesus” response is from the potential convert.  Chick Tract villains either respond with flippancy (“HAW HAW”) or by completely losing their shit.  I swear Jack Chick thinks that most non-Christians have bipolar disorder.

  • Carstonio

    Even if you’re not forcing your religion on others, you’re still taking the stance that they should join your religion, no matter what their religions might be. That goes against the principle of the individual having the right to belong to the religion of his or her choice. Very arrogant to believe that one’s religion is best for everyone. As a default, an individual’s religious beliefs are no one else’s business. To inquire about someone’s beliefs is just as intrusive as to inquire about how much money the person makes.

  • Tricksterson

    Right, it’s the converts to be that are always completely ignorant of the existance of Jesus or anything written in the Bible.

  •  As a Christian, my response is usually (with a slightly panicked expression) “I didn’t know he was lost.”

  • P J Evans

     And add that WIC requires that you buy specified sizes and types, so if your kids are lactose-intolerant, you probably won’t be allowed to substitute soy milk or rice milk. Which is, IMO, an insane way to run a program.

  • If I recall correctly, the WIC package that prints out here in Texas says that soy milk is allowed.  There is still a list of accepted brands, though.

    And the FDA’s WIC site says that soy beverages are included under “Milk and Milk Alternatives.”  I don’t know if some states still don’t allow soy milk or not.

  • I’m surprised the people who wrote the regulations for WIC didn’t just specify broad categories of acceptable dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and the like, since the money is going to be spent anyway, and presumably it would create less hassle all around.

  • Now I’m wondering, I was thinking of what I described as “villain” in more the literary sense of antagonist; I definitely wasn’t thinking of the “HAW HAW” incorrigible atheists.  But, would the potential convert in a Chick Tract who doesn’t acceptJesusChristashispersonallordandsaviour be the antagonist or protagonist?  I’m inclined to think s/he should be considered the protagonist, which would make me wrong either way.

  • EllieMurasaki

    When my family was on WIC in Mississippi (Florida did the lists of allowable supermarket food thing, and I don’t remember anything from Ohio and am not sure we had a high enough children-to-income ratio in Ohio to qualify anyway), we had to get all our WIC food from a warehouse. Which meant getting only the stuff they decided to keep at the warehouse. Including powdered milk or shelf-stable milk, both of which are useful only in cooking applications where one does not actually taste milk in the end product, and powdered or shelf-stable eggs, shelf-stable eggs being useful only for baking and scrambled eggs and powdered eggs being useful for nothing at all. We could not go to the supermarket and get fresh milk or eggs on WIC’s dime. I can’t remember, but I’m not sure we could even get produce on WIC’s dime. And I cannot imagine that it was less hassle for Mississippi WIC to warehouse all this food than to give us the lists of what we could buy at the supermarket with WIC money. I am in fact pretty sure that they were simply thinking that we, being poor enough to need WIC, did not deserve milk we could drink or eggs we could cook sunny side up.

  • The irony was that WIC was originally intended as a way to supplement AFDC and IIRC was brought in on Clinton’s watch. :( I’m thinking the Repubs in Congress must have changed it to a block grant system and given effective control over it to the states so that they could pull the kinds of things you found.

    If the Dems can get both Houses again in 2014 this should be one of the first things they change – yank control over WIC back up to federal level, and mandate that it supplement an EBT card already used for TANF and/or other forms of aid.

    It may not be flashy like universal health care but given your story, it sounds like it’s a program that could be improved to give poor people a break.

  • EllieMurasaki

    At least part of this was in the Clinton administration, because I turned eleven in 2000 and I went into seventh grade at eleven (I remember wishing I was at Hogwarts instead of Mercy Cross, because I was the right age to have gotten my Hogwarts letter the summer before Mercy Cross) and seventh grade was my third school year in Mississippi. And fuck if I know the composition of Congress at any point in the Clinton administration. Or the Bush administration, for that matter.

  • The Repubs had Congress from 1995 – 2001, lost the Senate by the barest margin in 2001 – 2003*, then retook both houses until 2007.

    * And we all know there’s almost always a Blue Dog who’ll vote the other way to screw up the majority vote.