By Nate Hochman
Even for an insider like me, the whirlwind of energy and debate within today’s conservative movement can be bewildering. But what’s clear is that the Republican Party is changing. A new kind of conservatism, represented by right-wing elites like Ron DeSantis, Christopher Rufo and Tucker Carlson, is making itself known. We are just beginning to see its impact. The anti-critical-race-theory laws, anti-transgender laws and parental rights bills that have swept the country in recent years are the movement’s opening shots. They have made today’s culture wars as fierce as they have been in decades. But this new campaign is also distinctly different from the culture wars of the late 20th century, and it reflects a broad shift in conservatism’s priorities and worldview.
The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian. That may seem strange to say at a moment when a mostly Catholic conservative majority on the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. But a reversal of the landmark 1973 ruling would be more of a last gasp than a sign of strength for the religious right. It’s hard to imagine today’s culture warriors taking any interest in the 1950s push for a Christian amendment to the Constitution, for example. Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity and political alienation. Although it enjoys the support of most Republican Christians who formed the electoral backbone of the old Moral Majority, it is a social conservatism rather than a religious one, revolving around race relations, identity politics, immigration and the teaching of American history.
Today’s culture war is being waged not between religion and secularism but between groups that the Catholic writer Matthew Schmitz has described as “the woke and the unwoke.” “Catholic traditionalists, Orthodox Jews, Middle American small-business owners and skeptical liberal atheists may not seem to have much in common,” he wrote in 2020. But all of those demographics are uncomfortable with the progressive social agenda of the post-Obama years.
Rather than invocations of Scripture, the right’s appeal is a defense of a broader, beleaguered American way of life. For example, the language of parental rights is rarely, if ever, religious, but it speaks to the pervasive sense that American families are fighting back against progressive ideologues over control of the classroom. That framing has been effective: According to a March Politico poll, for example, American voters favored the key provision of Florida’s hotly debated Parental Rights in Education law, known by its critics as the Don’t Say Gay law, by a margin of 16 percentage points. Support for the initiative crosses racial lines. In a May poll of likely general election voters in six Senate battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the conservative American Principles Project found that Hispanics supported the Florida law by a margin of 11 percentage points and African Americans by a margin of four points.
The upshot is that this new politics has the capacity to dramatically expand the Republican tent. It appeals to a wide range of Americans, many of whom had been put off by the old conservatism’s explicitly religious sheen and don’t quite see themselves as Republicans yet. As the terms of the culture war shift, Barack Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” — the mix of millennials, racial minorities and college-educated white voters whose collective electoral power was supposed to establish a sustainable progressive majority — is fraying, undermining the decades-long conventional wisdom that America’s increasing racial diversity would inevitably push the country left.
That thesis was prominently advanced by the progressive political scientists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, but both of them have grown alarmed about the rightward movement among nonwhite voters in recent years. “If Hispanic voting trends continue to move steadily against the Democrats, the pro-Democratic effect of nonwhite population growth will be blunted, if not canceled out entirely,” Mr. Teixeira wrote in December. “That could — or should — provoke quite a sea change in Democratic thinking.” In the absence of that sea change, however, it is likely that disaffected people of all races will continue to move into the Republican coalition.
But is all this good for American conservatism? Particularly for social conservatives older than I am, who have sustained a long string of losses in the culture war, the potential for a new Republican majority is nothing to sniff at. But some have already expressed misgivings about this coalition. “We must not allow evangelical political priorities to be co-opted by functional pagans simply because we share a limited set of political objectives,” wroteAndrew T. Walker, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Pushing back on “woke lunacy” is valuable, he said, but it may not be worth embracing a politics that “causes Christians to adopt or excuse the disposition of cruelty and licentiousness.” As of now, the new secular conservatives and the old religious right are bound together in an uneasy partnership to fight the cultural left. But they may yet find themselves at odds about the country’s future.
The Rise and Fall of the Religious Right
The Republican Party hasn’t always been the natural home for conservative Christians. In the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, some Republican governors — including Ronald Reagan of California — helped liberalize state abortion laws. In 1970, Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s liberal Republican governor, signed what Planned Parenthood’s president at the time, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, approvingly called “the most liberal abortion law in the world.” Democrats, on the other hand, were hardly all social liberals. In 1976, Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid was backed by Pat Robertson, a leading voice on the emerging religious right and the son of a Democratic senator. Mr. Robertson’s ally Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition declared that “God has his hand upon Jimmy Carter to run for president.”
All of that began to change with the inflammation of the culture wars in the final decades of the 20th century: Roe, the rise of mass-produced pornography, the Supreme Court’s ban on school-sponsored prayer, the gay rights movement and the push for an Equal Rights Amendment all drove the religious right to organize as a political force. As Democrats moved left on these issues, the G.O.P. pivoted right. In 1980 the Democratic Party platform added its first plank on gay rights, prompting the conservative columnist Pat Buchanan to remark bitterly that Mr. Carter was “not the sort of simpleton to allow biblical beliefs to get in the way of carrying San Francisco.”
When Mr. Reagan ran for president, he disavowed the abortion bill he signed in California as a “mistake” and courted the Moral Majority. In 1983 he published “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation” — the first book written by a sitting president. By the time George W. Bush was elected on the backs of evangelicals and born-again Christians in 2000, the culture war battle lines were clear. He went on to carry 80 percent of voters who ranked “moral values” as their top issue in 2004.
But American church attendance was declining. The share of self-identified Christians in the United States dropped from 75 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2021 while the share of religious “nones” — i.e., those who identified as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — jumped from 19 percent to 29 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The G.O.P. has not been immune to this trend. The share of Republicans who belong to a church dropped from 75 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2020, according to Gallup. Although the sharp drop-off in religiosity began in the liberal mainline Protestant denominations, it has spread to their conservative counterparts as well. Fewer than half of Republicans said “being Christian” was an important part of being American in 2020, according to Pew — a 15 percentage point drop from 2016. Across the ideological and theological spectrum, organized religion is waning.
As a result, the religious right’s influence in the G.O.P. has been declining since the Bush era. The party’s 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, repeatedly flip-flopped on Roe, votedagainst a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and decried Jerry Falwell as one of several “agents of intolerance.” Mitt Romney, who sat atop the G.O.P. presidential ticket in 2012, had a similarly spotty track record on social issues.
While President Donald Trump delivered on a number of religious conservative priorities — most notably, appointing enough conservative justices to the Supreme Court to cobble together a likely majority of anti-Roe votes — he is a lifelong pro-choicer and sexual libertine who made explicit appeals to gay and lesbian voters on the 2016 campaign trail and was the first openly pro-same-sex-marriage candidate to win the presidency. “It is hardly surprising that the religious right is no longer even perceived as a relevant force in U.S. politics,” George Hawley concluded in The American Conservative. “Far from a kingmaker in the political arena, the Christian right is now mostly ignored.”