When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz sat down for an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last month, he didn't spend much time bemoaning the moral rot embodied by the "homosexual agenda." He didn't call for boycotts of explicit rap albums, or express outrage at the availability of condoms in high schools, or champion some new law designed to combat the corrosive effects of pornography.
Instead, he made headlines with a dire warning for Christians everywhere: Your pastors could soon be prosecuted for hate speech.
"If you look at other nations that have gone down the road towards gay marriage, that's the next step where it gets enforced," he soberly intoned. "It gets enforced against Christian pastors who decline to perform gay marriages, who speak out and preach biblical truths on marriage."
Cruz is one of several prominent Republicans who have spent the past year actively reframing the conservative social agenda in terms of protecting religious freedom instead of enforcing "family values — a subtle but profound shift in the culture war that deliberately moves the religious right from offense to defense for the first time in decades.
In speeches, interviews, and op-eds, savvy culture warriors have abandoned the fervent rhetoric of the '80s and '90s that used to cast conservatives as champions of virtue, enemies of vice, and saviors of American society: That battle, many conservatives conceded to BuzzFeed, is lost. Instead, their new message centers on ensuring that the rights of religious institutions and believers aren't trampled under a stampede of secularism.
According to a range of interviews with Republican politicians and activists, the rationale driving this strategic shift is defined by a mix of genuine anxiety over big government encroaching on religion and recognition that moral policing has lost its political savor.
"I think it's the next phase of the debate," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said. "From a political perspective, people now have the freedom to live with and love anyone they want, but I don't think that saying churches are preaching bigotry because they don't agree is the right thing to do... You have instances around the world where it's against the law to preach against homosexuality even if that's what your faith teaches. I do think it's an issue we need to start talking about," he added.
Citing disparate cases in courts throughout the country, religious conservatives say they are facing a broad-based assault on their rights — and that their platform is built simply to counter these liberal aggressors. The Heritage Foundation has been documenting their grievances in this area and one of the think tank's scholars recently displayed a small sample platter of injustices in the National Review:
The New Mexico Human Rights Commission prosecuted a photographer for declining to photograph a same-sex "commitment ceremony." Doctors in California were successfully sued for declining to perform an artificial insemination on a woman in a same-sex relationship. Owners of a bed-and-breakfast in Illinois who declined to rent their facility for a same-sex civil-union ceremony and reception were sued for violating the state nondiscrimination law. A Georgia wellness counselor was fired after she referred someone in a same-sex relationship to another counselor.
Victimization isn't a new theme in conservative mythology. For a long time, the political right positioned itself as an oppressed majority at war with the liberal, secular elites who were out of step with mainstream America. But increasingly, religious Republicans are acknowledging that, on social issues at least, they are now simply in the minority.
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic who has built his career on culture war, pointed to the Mormon Church's shrinking role in the gay rights fight as an example of how secular society is trying to scare religious institutions out of the public square.
"They stood up courageously for [same-sex marriage ban] Proposition 8 in California, and the retribution they faced was, I think, unexpected for the church," Santorum said, citing a website that took the names and zip codes of donors to the Prop 8 effort and overlaid them on a Google map, allowing people to easily locate those who financially supported the ban. Businesses were boycotted, death threats were reported, and envelopes with white powder were sent to some of the donors. "For a minority religion, that's a big deal. So you saw that when the Boy Scouts issue came up, [Mormon leaders] said, 'You know what, this is not our fight. We're taking a step back.' They were bullied."
(A statement by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in May explained its decision to stick with the Boy Scouts of America after the organization started allowing out gay youth among its ranks as an attempt to "address the diverse needs of young people in the United States and throughout the world.")
Santorum blames President Obama for this perceived assault on religious people's rights. "I think the administration is very good at letting people go to church, but they're not so good at letting people leave church and apply their faith principles in daily life," he said. "The American public is going to wake up and say, 'Hey, wait a minute, we're for everyone being treated right and fair but that doesn't mean you can turn around and tell people what they can believe.'"
Meanwhile, the GOP's savvy set views the religious-freedom argument as a necessary political calculation after largely losing the culture war battles of the past 30 years. Gay rights are spreading rapidly across the country; pot is no longer taboo in many places; arguments over sex and violence in the media seem like a quaint pastime; and sodomy laws, once championed by mainstream Republicans, have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. (When Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate, began trying to enforce such laws earlier this year, it was a source of embarrassment for many in the GOP establishment. As one prominent Republican put it, "If it looks like you're picking on the gays, you lose.")
Establishment Republicans see religious liberty as a way to speak to the issues that are important to their traditional grassroots base without coming off as prudish and Puritanical to the rest of the country. It's also a message that aligns with the ascendant libertarian wing of the party — a sort of anti-regulatory Christian conservatism that Rand Paul and his acolytes can get behind.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist said the decision to start focusing on religious liberty represents "an incredible return to the successful 1980 model that was lost."
"How did the religious right first get organized in the 1970s? They felt like Jimmy Carter was going after their Christian schools and the FCC was going after Christian radio stations with the fairness doctrine. They went into self-defense mode," Norquist said. "None of them started up to go tell people how to run their lives.
But as their political influence grew, Norquist said, conservative Christians got greedy with their agenda — moving well beyond the protection of their own rights and earning a reputation among wide swaths of the electorate as bullies.
With those triumphant, Falwellian days firmly behind them, many social conservative leaders now seem ready to give up the movement's role as an electoral Goliath, and once again inhabit the character of the humble underdog, David.
"Clearly, those of us who are socially conservative recognize that we're not some sort of moral majority in American culture," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "We're speaking a word of prophetic witness to a culture that very often doesn't hear us."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.