In the weeks following George W. Bush's re-election to the presidency in November 2004, with exit polls saying that the election had been decided by voters who were moved primarily by "moral values," the religious right felt giddy. Its push to get states to adopt referenda banning same-sex marriage had been wildly successful and helped to mobilize conservatives. With the greatest political champion the movement had ever known assured of four more years in the White House, the religious right began to dream of passing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would permanently define marriage in traditionalist terms.
Fast forward to November 2014.
The federal marriage amendment is dead. Many of the laws and state-level constitutional amendments passed in 2004 have been overturned by judges. Same-sex marriage is allowed inwell over half the states in the union. The religious right arguably has less power within the Republican Party than at any time since before Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign for president.
And now First Things, the intellectually formidable monthly magazine that played a decisively important role in formulating the interdenominational and interreligious ideology that once galvanized the religious right, has decided to pick up its marbles and go home.
Maybe I'm overstating the significance of a brief article published on the First Things website earlier this week, but I don't think so. Authored by editor R.R. Reno, "A Time to Rend" appears to put the magazine's moral and intellectual weight (which remains considerable on the religious right) behind a movement that calls on churches to cease administering civil marriages.
That's right, the magazine founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus to fight secularism and champion religiously grounded moral arguments in the public square now thinks that priests and ministers should refuse to participate in marrying parishioners by presiding at wedding ceremonies and signing state marriage licenses. I mean, sure, they would still perform private wedding ceremonies in churches. But those couples would then have to get married a second time at city hall to become married in the eyes of their home state and (via the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution) the rest of the nation.
The reason Reno has taken this draconian position is, of course, the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage. Up until the past few years, conservative priests and ministers have presumed that what the state means by the term "marriage" is roughly equivalent to what the church means by it: a one-flesh union between two people of different genders ultimately oriented toward the generation of children (even if this proves impossible for a given couple stricken by infertility or another obstacle to childrearing).
A disjunct between ecclesiastical and civil marriage opened up in the 1960s and '70s with the liberalization of divorce law, but not enough to lead the churches to rethink the sacred-civic alliance. Roman Catholics were always free, for example, to add additional ecclesiastical notions of marriage on top of those presumed by the state. A Catholic could file for a civil divorce, but the church was free not to recognize it as valid and to proclaim that the partners could go their separate ways, remarry, and remain in good standing with the church only if they received a Vatican-approved annulment.
The controversies currently roiling the Catholic Church involve Pope Francis' seeming desire to smooth over these post-'60s tensions between civil and ecclesiastical notions of marriage by bringing the church into closer conformity with secular-civic norms of when and how marriages can be dissolved.
First Things is proposing a radical move in the opposite direction. The use of the word "rend" in the title of the essay is theologically significant. In addition to the violence of the image itself, which involves tearing or ripping of fabric, there is its meaning in the Jewish tradition, which calls on Jews to rend a garment as a demonstration of grief at the death of a loved one. This gesture can also be used as an expression of disgust at a family member or other member of the community who has committed a grave offense. When a garment is rent in such cases, the offending party is henceforth treated as if he were dead.
Reno would seem to be saying that conservative Christians need to tear themselves away from secular-civil notions of marriage, mourn the death of genuine marriage in American public life — and perhaps even utter a curse against what remains of it.
It's also important to grasp what Reno isn't saying. He isn't declaring, "No matter how many states permit same-sex marriage, churches should never be forced by the government to perform them." That would be a position that all liberals, religious and secular, should be able to affirm, since it would permit churches and clerics who are pro–same-sex marriage to preside over such marriages while also allowing those who reject their validity to remain true to their beliefs.
Reno seems to believe that the institution of civil marriage has been so compromised and defiled that churches will get their hands dirty by participating in it at all, even when the wedding involves a traditional marriage between a man and a woman, and even if the husband and wife pledge to live their lives and raise their children in full conformity with church teaching.
This is an astonishing proposal that would signal an unprecedented retreat of theologically conservative churches from engagement in American public life. That it is being put forward by a magazine dedicated, until now, to halting and reversing that retreat is extraordinary — and a particularly striking sign of the religious right's rapid collapse into a defensive, sectarian subculture.
It's also an indication that if the religious right is to have any future at all, it lies in the direction of the largely apolitical "Benedict Option" championed by The American Conservative's Rod Dreher. Inspired by Catholic philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, this vision suggests that conservative Christians should give up the ambition to remake and redeem the morally polluted common life of the country in favor of a drive to preserve and protect Christian virtues and families from the corruption of an increasingly aggressive secular culture and state, much as St. Benedict founded Western monasticism in the early sixth century to preserve Christian civilization amidst the ruins of the crumbling Roman Empire.
In some ways, this sounds like a return to the early decades of the 20th century, when fundamentalist Protestants lost an earlier round in the culture war with theological modernists, and responded by withdrawing almost entirely into the shadows, which is where they remained until the late 1970s.
Yet there is at least one important difference between then and now: this time conservative evangelicals may be joined, or even led, in their retreat by millions of Catholics. That would be a monumental change.
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.