As recently as 2004, when evangelicals were credited with reelecting George W. Bush, sexual mores defined the culture wars. But as the economy has become the political priority for liberals and conservatives alike, traditional culture-war issues—abortion, gay marriage—have been blunted as weapons in the political theater. What motivates religious conservatives now, says Tony Campolo, who prayed with Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair, is a vision of America as God’s own special country and a belief that free-market capitalism is crucial to its flourishing. “The marriage between evangelicalism and patriotic nationalism is so strong,” says Campolo, “that anybody who is raising questions about loyalty to the old laissez-faire capitalist system”—by, say, supporting bailouts”—“is unpatriotic, un-American, and, by association, non-Christian.”
Even moderate conservatives agree that the old-guard religious right and their social priorities don’t hold much sway in Washington, D.C. If the economy does not recover, “social issues may not be ‘wedge’ issues as in the past,” John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, emails. “However, patriotism could be a classic wedge issue in 2012, creating Republican votes among groups with liberal or moderate economic views.” Christian conservatives, of course, still care about abortion. But in August, when the Barna Group asked evangelicals what their top concerns were (without prompting), 52 percent said the economy—almost the same percentage as the larger population. Only 1 percent said gay marriage; abortion didn’t make the list.
Generally, evangelicals see themselves as a persecuted group whose values are under assault by the mainstream. The enemy is no longer moral relativism. It’s a kind of “global relativism” that makes no distinction between America and the rest of the world. Glenn Beck, for example, speaks frequently of God’s special destiny for America. “We used to strive in this country to be a shining city on the hill,” he said at his “Restoring Honor” speech in August.
Beck, Sarah Palin, and others are tapping into a deep place in the American Protestant psyche. When Beck talks about a city on the hill, he’s referring to a sermon by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. Winthrop was referencing Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and he was relating the settlers to God’s chosen people. This sense of America’s divine mission grew. In the mid–19th century, legions of Protestant missionaries fanned out across the globe. “We wouldn’t be in Afghanistan if it weren’t for the missionaries,” says Grant Wacker, a professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School. If America is exceptional, the thinking goes, outside forces will conspire to undermine its exceptionalism. These foes—real, imagined—have included communism, Catholicism, secularism, and Mormonism. Mark Noll, a historian at Notre Dame, says the idea of core values under siege characterizes the discourse today. “This aggrieved sense of a nation having been stolen is stronger now than it was [when FDR was elected] in 1940, and maybe stronger than it was [when JFK, a Catholic, was elected] in 1960.” Islam and big government are today’s enemies at work against America.
The irony that Beck, a Mormon, would become a leader of the Christian right escapes no one. But his gift, and Palin’s, is to articulate God’s special plan for this country in such broad strokes that he tramples no creed or doctrine in moving millions with his message. Jerry Falwell had a similar gift. In 1980 the Moral Majority helped make Jimmy Carter a one-termer.
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Become a fan of Lisa on Facebook.