David French is right to argue that evangelical Christians (and all supporters of religious liberty) will have to fight for their liberties or lose them. French’s argument for public protest is sound, but alongside his suggestions, perhaps we should consider how social conservatives have been fighting ineffectively. Perhaps our worst defeats are not at the hands of the media or Supreme Court liberals; perhaps our worst defeats are at the hands of politicians who will never live up to our hopes, and corrupt institutions that claim to be on our side. And perhaps the best way to defend religious liberty is to focus less on the next election (and there is always another next election) and more on the perspective of the average apolitical American.
As French notes, social conservatives have become far too dependent on politicians. Ted Cruz tried to pander to evangelicals by talking about awakening the body of Christ, and he hoped to win by maximizing turnout among evangelical conservatives. Ben Carson raised an amazing 62 million dollars—the vast majority of that money coming in small donations—for a campaign that appears to have been primarily a fundraising scam, and he barely made it out of the Iowa Caucuses.
The key to protecting religious liberty is not the next president (important as his—or more likely her—Supreme Court appointments will be). The key is the average apolitical American who doesn’t pay much attention to controversies about religious liberty or to anything else political. As French notes, only a minority of evangelical churchgoers are aware of any given religious-liberty controversy. The problem is much worse among non-churchgoers. The people who take an active interest in religious-liberty controversies are many, but they are also a minority. And they are a minority that faces hostility from America’s media and lawyer elites. If that minority cannot appeal to the apolitical majority, it will lose.
Political candidates cannot bear this burden of explaining everything to the general public. Some number of candidates will try to keep social conservatives in the coalition by saying as little as possible, as vaguely as possible. They might throw in a line about religious liberty in the middle of a speech, which will be lost on everyone but committed social conservatives.
That won’t be an accident. Candidates know that a hostile liberal media will seize on anything specific. Candidates also know that the average person’s only context for such issues will be what liberal journalists choose to tell them in the moment.
Other, more sincere and determined, candidates will bear the risk. But what kind of candidate is most likely to make that kind of self-sacrificing move? They will often be from socially conservative subcultures and will not be especially effective at talking to apolitical Americans (think Todd Akin).
Our media ecology encourages candidates to shy away from clear discussion of religious-liberty questions and limits the risks of aggression by liberals. Liberal can even take on stranger-than-fiction risks like attacking the Little Sisters of the Poor and be confident that most Americans will know little to nothing about their aggressions.
French refers to that small minority of evangelical Christians who are willing to write a check to protect religious liberty. That small minority actually produces quite a bit of money. The National Draft Ben Carson scamPAC managed to raise over 17 million dollars, for no real purpose other than to enrich some consultants and vendors. The entire Ben Carson adventure cost conservative donors over 90 million dollars, and not one person was educated about the cause of religious liberty or anything else. Other conservative-themed scamPACs have wasted over 20 million dollars on alleged expenses.
The crime is not the wasted money as such. The crime is the wasted opportunity—an opportunity to improve the media ecology experienced by the average American. For the 100-plus million dollars that were wasted by conservative scamPACs, tens of millions of Americans could have learned—in one-minute or thirty-second clips—what the Little Sisters of the Poor do and how the Obama administration is harassing them. They could have learned about the Gosnell murders and the horror of late-term abortion.
A campaign of this sort would have a cumulative effect on electoral politics. Since apolitical Americans would have more (and better) context for contested social issues, conservative-leaning politicians would be more inclined to talk about them. This new media ecology would place every discussion of religious liberty, every discussion of abortion, in the context of liberal extremism. Improving our media ecology would make conservative political activism easier and raise the political cost of liberal extremism.
We don’t need good politicians to save us. We need new and trustworthy institutions that can provide better incentives for all politicians. We are a minority, and we need to prioritize reaching out to people who are naturally apolitical and who get most of their information from the liberal media. Either we build effective institutions geared toward reaching normal people—or we lose.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.