Last week reporters on the campaign trail spent a few days hashing over some creepy old novels written by Virginia's Democratic candidate for senator, James Webb. Apparently Webb liked writing about incest, and about 13-year-old boys enthralled with "every bouncing breast and curved hip" (are there any other kinds?). Incumbent Sen. George Allen says the novels reflect badly on Webb's character and fitness for office. * Webb calls it literary license. As culture wars go, this one is pretty minor. But then, the press doesn't have too many to choose from this election season.
Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania's champion of the unborn, has already had his obituary run in the New York Times. Ken Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor in Ohio and the new multiracial face of the Christian right, has fizzled. The stem-cell debate has turned into a minor joke on Rush Limbaugh. The New Jersey gay marriage decision just sort of faded away; for a couple of days Bush hit the campaign trail complaining about "activist judges" and then went right back to the terrorist scare. And in the latest scandal of the election—Ted Haggard, one of the most charismatic evangelical leaders of this generation, was just accused of seeing a male prostitute and using drugs—there is no us and them; Christian conservatives are their own enemy.
The conclusion seems obvious: The Christian right as we know it has peaked, and now it is morphing into something different. The issues stirring voters this year do not seem to be the ones conservative Christians have traditionally cared about. Whatever influence they do have has been diffused, and co-opted. It's a Democrat, Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, who wins the prize for the most obnoxious religious ad; he aired one showing himself walking through his childhood church, his face framed by the stained glass, talking about how he learned right from wrong. Meanwhile Maryland's Democratic candidate for governor, Martin O'Malley, sounds the most like Bush 2004, talking about the importance of faith and what's in his heart.
All the election tick-tock stories hint that the drama is yet to come. Any day now Karl Rove will unlock the cages and poke the beasts out of their slumber. Any moment the right court decision, or medical ethics case, or sex scandal will have them storming the polling booths and taking back the country. This is the zombie paradigm that has been applied to the Christian right ever since its forces entered politics in the late '70s, and in fact for most of the century: One minute they're dead asleep, and the next minute they're biting your head off.
But the more likely explanation is the one offered by a host of recently published books: This time around, the Christian right we've grown used to has become just another part of the political establishment, with all the attending tedium. Once we had Pat Robertson's apocalyptic visions to look forward to every election. Now we have Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of The Purpose Driven Life, who roams around Washington quietly in his Hawaiian shirt making alliances with progressive pastors to save the environment. So mainstream is he that Starbucks loaned him their grande cups as his personal billboard: "You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense." So mainstream is he that he's practically invisible.
"Evangelicalism's persona has come of age in 2005," according to an editorial in Christianity Today quoted in Monique El-Faizy's God and Country. "We're no longer overlooked, persecuted, discriminated against, and misquoted in the mainstream media. So we've been mainstreamed, now what?"
To prove the "growing maturity and sophistication of the Christian right," Jeffrey Sheler, in his new book, Believers, dedicates a chapter to following around Rich Cizik, head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Cizik meets with various interest groups, weighs the views of senators, waits for a long time at a restaurant near the White House for Tim Geoglein, the White House's point man for evangelicals. "We evangelicals have learned to collaborate, to cross the aisles and religious barriers or whatever, in order to pass bills. This is what we have to do if we're going to win in Washington," Cizik tells him. Collaborate? Cross the aisles? Pass bills? Jeez. Where's The700 Club when you need it?
If you think about it, though, the impending theocracy thesis was never really sustainable. Books about the Christian right written by ex-evangelicals or secular Jews tend to make two points: 1) Be afraid, be very afraid. And 2) Boy, aren't they weird? The best example of this is Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming. After reading the first couple of chapters of her book, you will rush downstairs and bolt your doors because "something dark is loose," as she puts it. The seed of darkness, Goldberg explains, is R.J. Rushdoony, a Christian nationalist who advocated Christian dominion over America, the idea that pushed the Christian right into politics in the late 1970s.
From there the argument proceeds biblically. Rushdoony begat Jerry Falwell, Falwell begat George W. Bush, and Bush begat your one-way ticket to Canada. There's only one problem with this logic. Have you ever seen Rushdoony, or read a lot of his writing? He looks like the ayatollah. He advocated the death penalty for homosexuals, blasphemers, heretics, people who cursed or hit their parents, and probably Howard Stern. Even some Falwell associates once wrote an open letter calling him "scary." I'd bet a lot of money that any presidential candidate who had kind words for Rushdoony would lose a two-way race to Lenora Fulani.
In this new buttoned-up world you have to go outside Washington to get some of that old thrill back again. The weirdness of Christian evangelicalism has been passed on to the younger generation of believers, although it's not so easy to spot anymore. They may have grown up with parents talking about persecution of Christians and separating from mainstream culture, but they don't really feel it or live that way. They love Christ as much as they love their iPods, and they don't see the need to make a choice. They conduct their evangelism in the edgy ironic mode of YouTube. The pro-life protesters on the Supreme Court steps look like refugees from Nirvana with their scruffy hair and ripped-up sweatshirts.