While the campaign by social conservatives against gay marriage has grabbed headlines and consumed millions of lobbying dollars from religious groups, the wider crisis of divorce among straight couples -- especially evangelicals and often their leaders and political icons -- has been largely ignored by Christian conservatives.
That may be changing, however, with the latest evidence coming in a powerful essay published on Sept. 29 titled "Divorce -- The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience," by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the most prominent conservative Christian voices in America.
In the column on his website
, Mohler reiterates that the fight against abortion remains a priority, and that battling same-sex marriage "demands our attention and involvement as well."
"But," he continues, "divorce harms many more lives than will be touched by homosexual marriage."
"The real scandal," Mohler writes, "is the fact that evangelical Protestants divorce at rates at least as high as the rest of the public. Needless to say, this creates a significant credibility crisis when evangelicals then rise to speak in defense of marriage."
The touchstone for Mohler's jeremiad is an essay by Mark A. Smith of the University of Washington titled, "Religion, Divorce, and the Missing Culture War in America," which was published in the Spring edition of Political Science Quarterly.
Smith, an associate professor of political science who is completing a book on religion and the culture war in America, writes that in the 1960s evangelicals and social conservatives accepted the reality of divorce like most Americans. That was well before no-fault divorce laws -- usually pinned as the culprit for the rising divorce rate -- took effect.
Moreover, even as the Religious Right organized in the 1970s and began notching political victories in the 1980s, divorce was virtually ignored while issues such as abortion, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment and other hot button topics were emphasized as the real threats to society.
This occurred even though, as Smith writes, divorce, which is clearly and strongly condemned in the Bible, was prevalent among conservative Christians. His findings show that 43 percent of evangelical Protestants divorce, higher than almost any other religious group and above the national average of 38 percent. (Other surveys show the divorce rate is highest
in Red States and actually lowest in Blue States.)
Smith also notes that "divorce seems to carry a more direct connection to the daily realities of families than do the bellwether culture war issues of abortion and homosexuality."
Smith further argues that when divorce or strengthening marriage were mentioned by organizations associated with the Religious Right, it was in the context of private, spiritual improvement rather than the kind of public policy initiatives that were pushed as solutions to other problems. Occasional policy proposals to reduce divorce, such as the covenant marriage movement designed to pass laws mandating pre-marital counseling and make it more difficult for couples to divorce, drew little support from church leaders or members.
Smith also argued that excluding divorce as a priority reflected the political reality that to do otherwise would have alienated too many members of the Religious Right's constituency. All of these are conclusions Mohler does not dispute.
"That logic is an indictment of evangelical failure and a monumental scandal of the evangelical conscience," Mohler writes.
Mohler's focus on divorce is important because of his own bona fides as a Christian conservative and because it seems to reflect a debate about the future of evangelicalism and how to move beyond the political agenda of the Religious Right in order to affect society.
Certainly, the fight against gay marriage seems to be a losing battle
in the culture wars, given that younger believers are far more gay-friendly than their parents and grandparents, and as pop icons like Christian music artist Jennifer Knapp come out of the closet.
"Ten years from now, the issue of same-sex marriage will probably no longer be on the table," says
sociologist of religion D. Michael Lindsay, author of "Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite."
Moreover, the reality of divorce within conservative Christian communities is the elephant in the room that can no longer be ignored. At their annual meeting in Orlando this year, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention -- the largest Protestant body in the United States with 16 million members -- adopted a resolution
called, "On the Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce."
Indeed, the problem of Christian divorce is growing larger as the evangelical profile against gay marriage gets higher.
"We cannot very well argue for the sanctity of marriage as a crucial social institution while we blithely go about divorcing and approving of remarriage at a rate that destabilizes marriage," Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, wrote in August
after the court ruling invalidating Proposition 8, the California ballot measure banning gay marriage. "In short, we have been perfect hypocrites on this issue. Until we admit that, and take steps to amend our ways, our cries of alarm about gay marriage will echo off into oblivion."
In a roundtable response
to the Prop 8 decision at Christianity Today's website, many of the 13 evangelical voices also argued that it was time for Christians to look after their own houses in order to truly change U.S. culture -- an argument also set forth in a recent book by sociologist James Davison Hunter
, who coined the culture wars meme in the early 1990s.
Conservative pundits like Glenn Beck
and Ann Coulter are pushing versions of that view as well, while traditional political champions of the Christian Right, like Mississippi's GOP Gov. Haley Barbour
, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, also a Republican, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn
, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have said the party should downplay culture war issues.
In his essay, Mohler offered no specific proposals -- either in terms of public policy or church-oriented programs -- to reverse the trends in divorce nationally or among Christians themselves. And it's highly unlikely that Christian conservatives are going to wave the white flag on gay marriage, or suddenly retreat into the enclave mentality that characterized fundamentalists after the Scopes "Monkey Trial"
But the new focus on getting Christians to practice what they preach marks an important shift in the culture war front, and, if successful, could prove to be the most potent cultural argument evangelicals have ever deployed.