Is the Christian Right still a threat?
So -- is it time to declare victory and stop worrying?
I urge caution. To begin with, these setbacks have not made the Christian Right moderate its goals at all. Recent tentative suggestions from the Republican party establishment that the party should curb its hostility to gay marriage, for example, triggered a forceful backlash from the rank-and-file base (which largely consists of the Christian Right), given voice by major figures such as Mike Huckabee. Any hint of compromise on abortion remains taboo for the party; the barrage of high-profile attacks on it continues, most recently in Texas and North Dakota. Republican politicians know who their core supporters are.
The US Christian Right has also shown its true colors in its activities overseas. It has supported vicious anti-gay extremism in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa (Republic of Gilead blog has tracked this in detail, for example here and here), and in other countries such as Belize. Most recently it has found a soft spot for the Putin regime in Russia, which has cozied up to the Russian Orthodox Church by enacting a series of anti-gay measures. Comments by some Christian Right leaders involved in these efforts have made it clear that they dream of someday imposing similar policies in the US, if only it were possible.
But will they ever get the chance? Aren't they clearly in the minority now, and simply too weak to force their will on the country?
As I pointed out two years ago, there are scenarios in which the Christian Right could impose its rule even though it is in the minority. It dominates one of our two major political parties, and uses that dominance to push its agenda at the state level in states where Republicans are in power, as the campaign of anti-abortion laws shows. At the moment, they seem unlikely to be able to achieve the same thing on the federal level. Some polls show next year's Congressional elections alarmingly close, but there's some good news for our side too, and the Republican party has a track record of sabotaging itself with gaffes and un-serious candidates (Akin, Mourdock, O'Donnell, etc.). 2016 is a long way off yet, but polls show Hillary Clinton trouncing any Republican challenger, with the possible exception of Christie.
The de facto situation is that the political power of the Christian Right is determined by the electoral success of the Republican party, and that party remains in trouble due to its incompetence, its inability to adapt to demographic changes, and the very fact of its subservience to increasingly-unpopular religious extremists.
But there is one credible scenario in which all that could change -- a really major economic crash. Such events have a way of driving people into the arms of demagogues who offer simple solutions and point the finger at scapegoats. The Great Depression helped bring fascists to power in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and prolonged economic misery (caused, please note, mainly by the kind of austerity policies that conservatives advocate everywhere, including here) is encouraging extremist movements there even today.
Author Frederic Rich recently issued a warning in the form of an "alternate history" novel titled Christian Nation, set in an America in which McCain won the 2008 election and then died, allowing Palin to become President. He does not envisage Palin single-handedly imposing a theocracy (an implausible scenario); rather, conservative economic policies would have deepened the recession, creating conditions for extremism to take hold, while two Supreme Court appointments made by Palin rather than Obama would have neutralized Constitutional obstacles to fundamentalist rule. Watch him here:
If you consider that an economic crash is probably the Republicans' only real chance at returning to national power anytime soon, their behavior in Congress makes much more sense -- staging histrionic confrontations over the debt ceiling, threatening a government shutdown, sabotaging Obamacare, demanding cuts in benefits spending amid a still-weak recovery, etc. would be perfectly rational tactics if the intent were to damage the economy as much as possible in the hope that Democrats would be blamed and voted out of office.
They are unlikely to succeed. In four and a half years they have weakened the recovery, but have not managed to kill it. Obama seems more savvy in dealing with them than he was earlier in his Presidency, and a small bloc of less-radical Republicans willing to compromise on at least some issues has emerged. Then, too, even success could backfire; polls have shown that more voters would blame Republicans than Democrats if, say, the debt-ceiling brinkmanship really damaged the country.
But the fact remains -- in a two-party system, the "out" party is likely to regain power at some point. We won't really be able to declare the threat of theocracy to be decisively defeated until the Christian Right loses its dominance within the Republican party -- and there is little sign yet of that happening.