On Nov. 30, about a dozen moderate Christian leaders gathered for a meeting in Washington, D.C. Their colleagues on the religious right had been delivering a potent new message about God and country, of fear and domination, that was resonating among Christians and conservatives nationwide. Among those assembled last month were Jim Wallis, who has advised President Obama on matters of faith and politics; Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland church in Orlando, who has been an outspoken critic of public incivility; and Tony Campolo, a sociologist, pastor, and confidant of President Bill Clinton. Their purpose was tactical and forward-looking: how to use their broad communications networks to articulate a vision of Christianity that will counter a new—and newly powerful—religious-right rhetoric in advance of the 2012 election.
Gay marriage and abortion used to predictably drive religious-right voters to the polls. As recently as 2004, when evangelicals were credited with the reelection of George W. Bush, sex and sexual mores defined the sides in the culture wars. But no longer. As the economy has become the political priority for liberals and conservatives alike, the traditional family-values issues have been blunted—not in their importance to individuals but as weapons in the political theater. What’s motivating religious conservatives now, says Campolo, is a vision of America as God’s own special country, and free-market capitalism as crucial to the nation’s flourishing. Everyone who doesn’t see things this way, according to this perspective, is a socialist or a communist—“Pinkos who are subverting America under the auspices of the president of the United States,” he says. “The marriage between evangelicalism and patriotic nationalism is so strong that anybody who is raising questions about loyalty to the old, laissez-faire capitalist system is ex post facto unpatriotic, un-American, and by association non-Christian.” Support for Obama, in other words, equals an abandonment of American principles equals godlessness. And the spokesman for this movement, adds Campolo, is the Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. “There’s no question in our minds about that.”
Though Beck may not be every conservative Christian's idea of a leader, many moderate conservatives agree that the old-guard religious right—represented by Pat Robertson and James Dobson—and their social priorities have ceased to hold much sway in Washington. Further, they believe that something like Christian patriotism, what in theological circles is often called “American exceptionalism,” has replaced abortion and gay marriage as the rallying cry of the religious right. “Right-of-center independents and religious conservatives believe that America is an exceptional place,” says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “If you’re going to be a candidate or a leader of a party and you’re seen as a person who doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, you’re going to have a hard time winning.” And because the economy has obliterated almost every other issue, there is very little daylight between social and fiscal conservatives, says John Green, political scientist at the University of Akron. If the economy does not recover, “social issues may not be as much ‘wedge’ issues as in the past,” he writes in an email. “However, patriotism could be a classic wedge issue in 2012, creating Republican votes among groups with liberal or moderate economic views.”
Christian conservatives still care a lot about abortion (though polls do show that gay marriage is fast becoming a nonissue to the younger generation). According to a summer poll by the Pew Forum, 73 percent of Americans who “strongly identify” with the religious right say abortion is “very important.” But in August, when the Barna Group asked evangelicals, in an open-ended way, what their top concerns were, 52 percent said the economy, almost exactly the same percentage as the population at large. Only 1 percent said gay marriage; and another 1 percent said morality and moral values. Abortion didn’t even make the list. “Interests of the economy and America’s special place in the world were front and center,” says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “Special interests were less important.” According to the same Barna poll, evangelicals care more about terrorism and national security than the rest of the population and less about jobs and education.
Evangelicals characteristically see themselves as a persecuted group whose values are under assault by the mainstream culture, and Beck has most successfully (and visibly) reframed those values in terms of patriotism. The enemy is no longer “moral relativism,” a term that encompasses sexual promiscuity, divorce, homosexuality, and pornography. It’s socialism, the redistribution of wealth, immigrants—a kind of “global relativism” that makes no moral distinction between America and every other place. Beck speaks frequently about God’s special destiny for America. “We used to strive in this country to be a shining city on the hill,” he said at the “Restoring Honor” rally in August. “That’s what the Pilgrims came here for. That’s what they thought this land was. It’s what our Founders thought ... It is the shining example of a place where people work together in peace and friendship and worship God and make things better together.”
Sarah Palin, arguably the other emergent leader of the religious right, echoes this rhetoric. “Molding the crooked timber of humanity requires the grace of God,” she writes in her new book, America by Heart. “We have to know what makes America exceptional today more than ever because it is under assault today more than ever.” With this rhetoric, Beck and Palin are tapping a deep place in the American Protestant psyche. When Beck talks about the city on the hill, he is referring—directly—to a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, given while he and his Puritan brethren were still at sea. Winthrop was making a reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and in so doing was comparing New England, the new world, to heaven—the world that God would make at the end of time. By association, he was comparing the settlers with God’s chosen or special people.
This sense of America’s divine mission in the world grew. In the middle of the 19th century, legions of Protestant missionaries fanned out across the globe on errands from God, hoping to teach others the lessons of democracy and the Gospel—ideologies that were inexorably intertwined. “We wouldn’t be in Afghanistan if it weren’t for the missionaries of the 19th century,” says Grant Wacker, professor of American religious history at Duke. “It’s this whole complex of ideas: the world is our province, and we have both the right and the obligation to tutor the rest of the world.”
If America is an exceptional place, the thinking goes, then outside forces will always conspire to undermine or neuter its exceptionalism. Throughout American history, these foes—real and imagined—have included communism, Catholicism, secularism, and Mormonism. Arguments against slavery and for civil rights were made on behalf of God’s special love for America. Mark Noll, a historian at Notre Dame, believes that this sense of core values under siege characterizes American political discourse today. “I do think,” he says, “that this aggrieved sense of a nation having been stolen is stronger now than it was in 1940, and maybe stronger than it was in 1960.” Islam and big government are today’s enemies—at work against America and against God’s plan. The problem with the left, according to Beck: “Their god is government.”
It’s ironic that Beck, a Mormon, would gain acceptance as a leader of a new Christian coalition: Mormon theology in the 19th century was seen as so heretical—such a threat to the Protestant establishment—that the followers of Joseph Smith were routinely persecuted and killed. But Beck’s gift, and Palin’s, is to articulate God’s special plan for America in such broad strokes that they trample no single creed or doctrine while they move millions with their message. Jerry Falwell had a similar gift, and in 1980 his Moral Majority helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president—and elect Ronald Reagan in a landslide.
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.