The Iowa caucuses today will officially begin the end of social conservatism as a force in American politics. But this gives an opportunity for local churches to refocus their energies. There may be surprises in Republican results by the end of the evening. Consensus this week has been that Mike Huckabee has been hurt by Mitt Romney's assaults, and that Romney has retaken the lead. But John McCain once again has a field operation in the state, and he was there for a last burst of campaigning, feeling energized by positive news from New Hampshire. There was buzz about a "late-breaking surge" for Fred Thompson at National Review Online yesterday (here).
For the evangelical project of recovering traditional values through political activism, though, none of this matters. I see three basic reasons why the grass roots social conservatism of the last two decades is done.
First, a generational split has undermined evangelical political unity. Emergents are far more likely to take liberal/progressive stands on the war, the environment, and economic issues. They treat their elders' project of restoring America's Judeo-Christian heritage contemptuously. I've written on this here.
Second, those who live by biblical sexual morality are in the minority in the nation at large -- and there is some question in my mind whether they even command of a majority of evangelicals. The presupposition behind social conservative positions on family policy, gay marriage, abortion, and the role of public education is that monogamous married sex should be normative. The proportion of Americans who accept that presupposition has been shrinking for the better part of three decades.
Few voters are open to social conservative policy positions anymore.
Consider Britain in the 1990s. Prime Minister John Major made family values a significant part of the Conservative Party's message in the years before he faced Tony Blair in a general election. But Major's government was hit with one sex scandal after another. His successor as party leader, William Hague, tried to rehabilitate the party's image in a number of ways. He made his position on morality clear by touring the country with his live-in girlfriend.
There is no political expression of traditional sexual morality in British politics today. Nor will there be. The populace will not tolerate it.
I believe we face a similar dark moment in America now. The sex scandals afflicting Republicans for the past year or more need no repetition. I believe the demise of biblical sexuality in American culture is an unmitigated catastrophe. But its demise is a fact. The outcome in Iowa will do nothing to help restore it. Biblical sexuality is now countercultural.
Thirdly, evangelical conservatives do not have a top tier candidate for the Republican nomination. Rudy Giuliani is not a social conservative in any sense, nor has he made any effort to appease the pro-life part of the Republican base. With Sen. McCain, evangelicals might be able to make peace, but they would remain a small part of his coalition. They would not figure in a McCain administration the way they have in Bush's.
Gov. Huckabee is certainly an evangelical. But even a win in Iowa will not make him a top-tier candidate. He does not have the money, the organization, or, frankly, the depth.
Which leaves Gov. Romney. Too many evangelicals know too much about Mormonism to have any illusions about a spiritual, or even a moral, alliance. They may vote for him. They know well enough that they're not selecting the nation's Sunday school teacher. But he's not their guy.
Without a top-tier candidate, evangelicals are reduced to bargaining for specific policy priorities at a nominating convention they will not control. And they are ill-positioned to do this sort of bargaining because of their own divisions and because of the larger culture's hostility.
Which brings me to what I think is the evangelical opportunity.
Evangelicals have an opportunity to see their role in America clearly. They are no longer mainstream. Their role is to build local churches that are countercultural in every way -- in their devotion to the Bible, in their demonstration of love, and in their vitality from the resurrected Jesus. Building more malls with good clean fun for the whole family is not going to be part of this role. Evangelicals are going to have to build a new, non-conformist way of life.
In order to take this opportunity to be countercultural, evangelicals will have to focus all their energies on the gospel -- the message that people's sin can be forgiven and their souls reborn. In the coming darkness, we will not have political strength. We will only have the Lord Jesus Christ.