As Alabama voters head to the polls to decide Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore’s fate, the Supreme Court is mulling Masterpiece Cakeshop. That’s the bakery that declined to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple on religious liberty grounds.
It is a noteworthy coincidence. Conservative Christians increasingly see themselves as fighting to live out their values in both the private sector and public square. They struggle to avoid funding Planned Parenthood, participate in wedding ceremonies that contradict their faith’s definition of marriage, and finance certain birth control methods. Moore, however, is a throwback to an older form of social conservatism that tries to legislate morality. He does not even believe homosexual behavior should be legal.
Most politically active social conservatives don’t go that far. Nor do many of them share Moore’s alleged penchant for dating girls as young as 14 before he was married. The polls are all over the place, but there’s a real possibility that Moore could lose the Senate seat Attorney General Jeff Sessions last won with over 97 percent of the vote—no Democrat even bothered to run against him in 2014—precisely because a critical mass of Alabamians believe he wants to legislate morality more consistently than he wants to live it.
Less unique to Moore is a social conservatism motivated by restoring Christianity’s cultural preeminence in the United States. That certainly was a big part of thrice-married President Trump’s appeal to evangelicals and white conservative Catholics during last year’s campaign. Few view him as a moral crusader like Moore, but he makes clear he doesn’t want “the Christians” or “the evangelicals” pushed around.
“You remember the campaign. I said, ‘Let me begin by wishing each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas,’” Trump said at a recent rally in Pensacola, Florida (during which he also offered a full-throated endorsement of Moore and questioned the truthfulness of one of the candidate’s accusers). He later added, “Remember I said we’re bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before. We’re bringing Christmas back.”
I happen to like people saying “Merry Christmas,” though as with standing for the pledge of allegiance I prefer it not to be a partisan political weapon. Most public Christmas displays don’t violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause properly understood.
But this fixation on showing the secular humanists who’s boss sits rather uneasily with conservative Christians’ efforts to be taken seriously when they seek religious liberty protections. The culture war over same-sex marriage only ended recently and it was always going to be a challenge for the losing side to elicit charity from the winners. Liberals rather quickly lost interest in things like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act once it became useful for protecting conservative Christians rather than other religious minorities.
Conservative Christians, as opposed to all professing Christians as a group, are clearly now a religious minority. Their understanding of marriage no longer informs our laws. Their sexual mores are in many cases about as popular as Moore’s dating practices from 40 years ago.
The paradox is that retreating into a form of white Christian identity politics is likely to make courts and other influential institutions less accepting of traditionalist religious liberty claims rather than more. Moore’s election would likely help them influence the composition of the courts, while almost certainly hurting them in the court of public opinion.
The so-called religious right has always had a variety of competing motives for its political involvement. Some view politics as a defensive, to protect their freedom. Others have sought to moralize, even Christianize, the culture. Still others are concerned with transcendent moral issues, like protecting unborn children from abortion.
In the past, those differing motives could coexist easily. The same political movement could protect Christians’ religious liberty and defend Christianity’s special place in American culture. Now if there is not a conflict, there is at least a tension, especially as conservative Christians’ freedom of conscience begins to clash with discrimination laws as they are applied to new protected classes.
A Moore defeat at the hands of liberal Democrat Doug Jones would put conservative Christians in a weaker place on judges and other legitimate issues of public concern. If he wins, however, it won’t help their argument that they want religious liberty rather than using the levers of government to bring others to heel.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?