Early in January I posted a piece discussing how the Gingrich adultery/divorce thing is showing that a big chunk of the religious right is a collection of hypocrites for giving serious and in many cases enthusiastic consideration to the former Congressperson as a presidential candidate ( click here ). That was when it looked like Newt's fortunes were on the wane. Now that he kicked Romney's butt in the first Confederate -- oops, sorry, that's southern -- and Bible Belt primary state, it is opportune to take a further look at what the past of the darling of many a theocon tells us about the moral nature as well as the demographic slide of the religious right.
Before continuing there is a need to be careful about how one dumps on Newt and the right. A fair number of conservatives were appalled at how the audience cheered Newt's fake indignation at a legitimate question about his marriage/infidelity history. He bemoaned how such questions kept "decent" people from running for office. Even though they were as morally disgusted as moderates and liberals at the thought that a man, with such an unsavory personal and political history, representing the party this fall. Nor should liberals be on too much of high horse about this. Many a progressive Democratic president has had serious sexual skeletons in their closets, FDR, JFK and WJC to be specific. A fair number of liberals are OK with couples choosing open marriage. The problem with the right's peccadilloes is the eye-popping hypocrisy that goes along with it. It is morally galling that Gingrich proudly, and loudly, has and is proclaiming himself a transformative figure who is working to return the nation to those good old fashioned All-American values including no messing with around with heterosexual nuclear family fidelity. To the degree that he told wife #2 that she should keep quiet about his affair because it was more important the adulterous divorcee continue to be able to tell the nation about family values. He is still at it. His stump speeches prattle on about how he is best suited to beat Obama and return the nation to its traditional moral ways.
And it is morally galling and appalling how so many so called traditionalist conservatives are not only backing Newt's bid for the White House, they are cheering on his crude diversionary tactic of blaming the media for daring even to bring his personal history up at all. As Gingrich did to Clinton after the latter lied about Monica and the former was enjoying another affair. In South Carolina four married female primary voters opted for Newt over the faithful Romney. As I explained in the earlier essay, this is all part of a marvelously cynical campaign by a large portion of the right to set things up so that theoconservatives can do pretty much what they please and get away with it. While the right retains the ability to shame any liberal who dares think of straying from what the godly conservatives tell everyone else what they can and especially cannot do.
But as I further discussed in the earlier piece, the theoconservative effort to mainstream divorce and adultery as long as it is done by right wingers who then announce that they have sought and received the forgiveness of their God is not working all that well. Always a minority the Moral Majority was neither. American theoconservatism is in such sharp decline that it is setting off alarms among the more astute leaders of the Christian right.
It's partly a matter of stats. It has long been popular wisdom that the mainline churches have been in growing trouble since the 1960s. That's true, but the theocon churches are not particularly healthy either as I explained at Washington Post/On Faith ( click here ). The megachurches we all hear about draw in about 1.5% of the population on a given Sunday, in general a quarter or less of Americans are regular church goers. Every ten years the good folks at Faith Communities Today, bless them, report on the state of the churches. It's not so good. Congregation size shrunk as much as 20% in the first decade of the new millennium as churchgoers age.The pews of conservative denominations are emptying along with those in the moderate establishments. The National Association of Evangelicals calculates that less than one in twenty children born into an evangelical home "will be Bible-believing Christians as adults." An internal report by the Southern Baptists, the largest theocon denomination, warns that "evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration." They are baptizing new members at the same absolute rate as they were half a century ago when the population was half what it is now, and it is young folks are most resistant. The creationists look like they are at long last starting to drop ( click here ). That is not surprising because the Bible literalism that creationism depends upon has been steadily slipping from 40% to 30% over these last 30 years.
It is not just demographics that are exposing how theoconservatism is beginning to list to starboard like the Costa Concordia after its incompetent leadership steered it onto the rocks. Hard line theocon think tanks like Focus on the Family are downsizing as funding dwindles. The Moral Majority and Christian Coalition no longer exist. When 150 conservative Christian opinion leaders got together and issued a statement that the born and rightist Catholics should all rally around Santorum. Most voters in the deep southern Bible Belt primary state South Carolina paid them no mind as a lot of them voted for who may qualify as the best known serial philanderer in the country. The three most dedicated evangelical candidates, Santorum, Perry and Bachmann, have failed or look to be going that way.
Fact is, the right never really has gotten the guy they want. Even Reagan was a nonchurchgoer divorcee (the first in the White House) who more talked the theocon talk rather than walked the evangelical walk. Then there was Bush 1 who was mainstream Protestant rather than born-again. Same for Dole, who ended up doing erection ads.After his run for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Same for McCain. Looks like the pattern is holding for 2012. If either neoCatholic Gingrich or Latter Day Saint Romney gets the nomination, the evangelical right will have failed to get the man or woman they have been desperately seeking for decades. The reason is that there just aren't enough right wing theists to vote one of their own into the presidency, or even the nomination, and that is not going to change.
The main reason that the theoconservative minority is becoming an even smaller minority is simple enough. The country is becoming more atheistic, with those who lack belief in God having quadrupled since the 1960s. To about a fifth of the population rivaling the religious right in numbers. What sends chills down the theocon spine is that it's mainly a youth thing. Current twentysomethings are twice as nonreligious as the same cohort was in the 1990s. And secularization is rapid, atheists increased their numbers by 10 million over the last decade. Also on the rise are those who support evolution. It's a creationist demographic nightmare. As for why the USA is going down the secular road, that's what has happened in every other advanced democracy,it has to do with the overwhelming forces of modernity, like modern science, education, prosperity, and the corporate-consumer culture which has been doing a bang up job of converting citizens from the pious church goers a lot more of them were a century ago into secular consumers and the churches are not able to cope with it or reverse it.
But theoconservatives are not helping themselves. A public relations factor that's abetting the religious right's trip towards the demographic ICU, is that after a few decades of watching them screw up like everyone else, it is painfully clear that they are just pulling everyones legs when they try to tell the rest of the nation how everyone else should behave. Being human beings like the rest of us, they cannot help themselves from slipping on one ethical banana peel after another, and have no optionbut to try to brazenly bluster their way through the messes they create and hope for the best. Their biggest advantages are the money that flows from the rich rightists and the organization provided by the theocon churches. These combine to leverage the power of conservatism well above its minority status, and gives them the power to do considerable harm to the nation. But that power is very likely to wane. Money and organization only go so far in the face of ineptitude, moral and otherwise, that the right exhibits in spades, and if the not so Grand Old Party actually manages to nominate the man that the American Spectator has labeled as having shown a "proclivity for girl hopping" over an alternative who apparently is family values wise squeaky clean, then the majority of the right will forever have exposed themselves as exquisitely base and corrupt. Morally valueless relativists of convenience who have lost any claim to any ethical advantage. And the American majority will notice, that will do a good job of accelerating the decline of the right. That is not likely to happen, but even so considerable the right has done itself considerable damage by keeping Gingrich a major player.
The take home message is that the left has not been fighting a desperate holding action against a growing threat from the shamelessly hypocritical right. Notice, for instance, how the relatively secular Occupy consists mainly of the youth that represents the future while the much more theist Tea Party is largely aging baby boomers that are not going to be around a whole lot longer (surveys confirm the more progressive orientation of younger Americans. What the left needs to do is to devise the means to further weaken and accelerate the decline of a right that is already in long-term retreat. That means that progressives should not be adopting a defensive stance, but have to be on the offensive, in order to push the center to the left. That of course is what Occupy is about.