My friend Matt Anderson thinks that social conservatives have given in to “handwringing” and “freak out panic end of the world despair” after last Tuesday’s election. I think he is commenting on what he sees as a general trend among social conservatives, but he singles out me and Al Mohler in particular. Yes, Mohler and I did refer to the election as a disaster, but as far as I know there hasn’t been any handwringing on the part of either of us. Anderson has not only misread us, but I think he also risks missing the lessons of this last election.
If the culture war were a chess game, the last election was a check, not a checkmate. It’s not that social conservatives are out of moves, completely hemmed in with nowhere else to go. We lost a battle, but not the war. There is still much to do. We live to fight another day, and our prospects are good on many fronts.
Having said that, we make a huge mistake if we whistle along like Tuesday’s election was anything other than a disastrous defeat. And I’m not simply talking about the fact that America–with wide-eyed realism–reelected the most anti-life, anti-marriage, and anti-religious liberty candidate in American history. That’s not all that happened. We have been watching support for traditional marriage wane in national polling for many years now. We knew that the ground was shifting beneath our feet, but last Tuesday was the first time in American history that any state won a statewide vote in favor of gay marriage. And it happened in four states at once! Yes, the votes were close. Yes, they were in liberal states. But it was a remarkable victory that even five years ago would have been very unlikely. It signaled that there is a sea change going on right now in people’s thinking about marriage, and the trend is going away from us not toward us. Add to that the fact that two states voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and the cultural declension comes into clear view.
It does no one any good to sing songs to a troubled heart (Prov. 25:20) or to proclaim “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14). To do so would involve the same Pollyannaish credulity that had conservatives thinking that Mitt Romney’s reelection was a slam dunk when all the polls indicated otherwise. We are not served by refusing to look reality in the face. Indeed, before the remedy comes the diagnosis, and social conservatives need to come to grips with what ails their cause.
To wit: We are not winning hearts and minds on the issue of marriage. Why is that? Is there anything to be done about it? Is Rod Dreher right to say that we should give up the fight? Social conservatives need to face these questions head-on, but they won’t be able to if discussion is foreclosed by the erroneous notion that things aren’t so bad after all.
As a Christian, I have a special concern that believers understand that our convictions and our witness are in no way dependent upon the rise or fall of either political party. There are cynics on both sides of the aisle, and we are not hitching our wagon to either one. Our ultimate hope is in another city altogether (Heb. 13:14). But while we await that city we have the happy privilege of bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as disciples we love our neighbors by seeking the common good of the city we inhabit now (Jer. 29:7). We can stand with others on principle for the common good, but our secular coalitions are not ends in themselves. If a political party can be more or less enlisted in the service of our cause for the common good, then so be it. If it becomes necessary to sever those ties on principle, then so be it. We stand on principle, not partisanship. Our ultimate allegiance is to King Jesus, not to the powers that rise and fall in advance of His kingdom.
Here’s the bottom line for me. I want to see our nation affirm a culture of life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty. The last election reveals that social conservatives are failing at that task. Why is that? How can we mitigate the decline? These are the nuts that social conservatives need to crack, but they’re not going to do it if they are consoling themselves with “social conservative issues actually did better than the candidate” in the last election. That is backward looking, and we need to be looking forward. That is where my eyes are trained, and I’m hoping others’ will be too.