Is the Christian right finished as a political entity? Or, more to the point, are principled Christians finished with politics?
These questions have been getting fresh air lately as frustrated conservative Christians question the pragmatism—defined as the compromising of principles—of the old guard.
One might gently call the current debate a generational rift.
The older generation, represented by such icons as James Dobson, who recently retired as head of Focus on the Family, has compromised too much, according to a growing phalanx of disillusioned Christians. Pragmatically speaking, the Christian coalition of cultural crusaders didn't work.
For proof, one need look no further than Dobson himself, who was captured on tape recently saying that the big cultural battles have all been lost.
Shortly thereafter, in late March, Christian radio host Steve Deace of WHO Radio in Iowa aggressively interviewed Tom Minnery, head of the political arm of Focus on the Family. Minnery, whom Deace described as "the Karl Rove of the religious right," accused Deace during the interview of ambushing him when he had expected a chat about Dobson's legacy.
Indeed, Deace was loaded for bear—or Pontius Pilate. It wasn't exactly a Limbaugh/Obama matchup, but it was confrontational, and corners of America's heartland and Bible Belt have been buzzing ever since.
Deace's point was that established Christian activist groups too often settle for lesser evils in exchange for electing Republicans. He cited as examples Dobson's support of Mitt Romney and John McCain, neither of whom is pro-life or pro-family enough from Deace's perspective.
Compromise may be the grease of politics, but it has no place in Christian orthodoxy, according to Deace.
Put another way, Christians may have no place in the political fray of deal making. That doesn't mean one disengages from political life, but it might mean that the church shouldn't be a branch of the Republican Party. It might mean trading fame and fortune (green rooms and fundraisers) for humility and charity.
Deace's radio show may be beneath the radar of most Americans and even most Christians, but he is not alone in his thinking. I was alerted to the Deace-Minnery interview by E. Ray Moore—founder of the South Carolina-based Exodus Mandate, an initiative to encourage Christian education and home schooling. Moore, who considers himself a member of the Christian right, thinks the movement is imploding.
"It's hard to admit defeat, but this one was self-inflicted," he wrote in an e-mail. "Yes, Dr. Dobson and the pro-family or Christian right political movement is a failure; it would have made me sad to say this in the past but they have done it to themselves."
For Christians such as Moore—and others better known, such as columnist Cal Thomas, a former vice president for the Moral Majority—the heart of Christianity is in the home, not the halls of Congress or even the courts. And the route to a more moral America is through good works—service, prayer and education—not political lobbying.
Moore says: "In the modern era of the Christian right, we have traded these proven methods for a mess of pottage ... and often in a shrill and nagging manner, which makes our God look weak in the eyes of the world."
Amen to that, says Thomas, who made similar points in his 1999 book "Blinded by Might," co-written with Moral Majority platform architect Ed Dobson. Thomas, who speaks with a stand-up comic's clip (and wit), has long maintained that the religious right is in left field.
"If people who call themselves Christians want to see any influence in the culture, then they ought to start following the commands of Jesus, and people will be so amazed that they will be attracted to Him," Thomas told me. "The problem isn't political. The problem is moral and spiritual."
Whether James Dobson's admission of failure—or Deace's challenges to Minnery—foretells a crackup of the older Christian right remains to be seen. But something is stirring, and it sounds like the GOP may be losing its bailout money. God apparently has his own stimulus plan.
"You have the choice between a way that works and brings no credit or money or national attention," says Thomas. "Or a way that doesn't work that gets you lots of attention and has little influence on the culture."
It is hard to imagine a political talk show without a self-appointed moral arbiter bemoaning the lack of family values in America.
But, do let's try.