This fearful rhetoric is nothing new. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan told of “a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” The conservative movement that came to be known as the “religious right” rose in the 1980s and ’90s on the strength of this “culture war” frame.
But American culture has actually become much more hostile toward social conservatives in recent years, Weber claimed. Especially on issues related to same-sex marriage and sexual identity, he said, “when [conservative] views are expressed in public, there’s a reaction to that. That reaction is very different to what it would be years ago, and I would argue even 10 or 12 years ago.” He pointed to the backlash against Memories Pizza in Indiana or to Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla. “It’s an intolerant reaction, saying, ‘You have no place in polite society,’” Weber said. “In so many words, ‘You need to change, or get out of the public square.’”
Mozilla’s gay-marriage litmus test violates liberal values
For its part, Heritage sees this political moment as an opportunity to insulate America against a further cultural slide of this kind. For all the celebration around Kavanaugh’s nomination, the Supreme Court needs to be less powerful, argued Tim Chapman, the executive director of Heritage Action. “The shift that’s happening on the Court is … healthy for the country because it will take down the political temperature,” he argued. “Can we begin to convince our fellow Americans that it’s a very good thing to have these conversations taking place at the local level rather than at the Supreme Court level?”
“What Tim is articulating is our grand strategy,” Anderson added. “Our goal here is that Congress, the Court, [and] federal bureaucracy spends less time dictating culture, and more time legislating.”
All of this adds up to a peculiar, mismatched mood in Washington. While socially liberal and progressive groups are constantly sounding the alarm of existential crisis, social conservatives are warning of a different existential crisis that will be waiting at the end of the Trump era. This is why some groups that may disagree with Trump’s actions in other policy areas are keeping their heads down and working, for example, to put judges in place: They’re trying to build an infrastructure that will last well beyond Trump.
It’s not all doomsaying in the conservative world, however. This week, as Sessions announced a new religious-liberty task force to address the dark threats he described, Perkins, the head of FRC, was triumphant. “We are witnessing a revival of freedom!” he said in a statement. “The formation of this task force puts bureaucrats on notice: You will respect the freedom of every American not only to believe but to live according to those beliefs.” This, he seemed to be saying, is just the kind of defense American culture needs.