Christian conservatives, for more than two decades a pivotal force in U.S. politics, are grappling with Election Day results that repudiated their influence and suggested that the cultural tide — especially on gay issues — has shifted against them.
They are reeling not only from the loss of the presidency but from what many of them see as a rejection of their agenda. They lost fights against same-sex marriage in all four states where it was on the ballot, saw anti-abortion-rights Senate candidates defeated and two states vote to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
It is not as though they did not put up a fight; they went all out as never before: The Rev. Billy Graham dropped any pretense of nonpartisanship and all but endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Roman Catholic bishops denounced President Barack Obama’s policies as a threat to life, religious liberty and the traditional nuclear family. Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition distributed more voter guides in churches and contacted more homes by mail and phone than ever before.
"Millions of American evangelicals are absolutely shocked by not just the presidential election but by the entire avalanche of results that came in," R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Ky., said in an interview. "It’s not that our message — we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong — didn’t get out. It did get out."
"It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed," he said. "An increasingly secularized America understands our positions and has rejected them."
Conservative Christian leaders said that they would intensify their efforts to make their case but were just beginning to discuss how to proceed.
"We’re not going away; we just need to recalibrate," said Bob Vander Plaats, president and chief executive of The Family Leader, an evangelical organization in Iowa.
The election results are just one indication of larger trends in American religion that Christian conservatives are still digesting, political analysts say. Americans who have no religious affiliation — pollsters call them the "nones" — are now about one-fifth of the population overall, according to a study released last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The younger generation is even less religious: About one-third of Americans ages 18-22 say they are either atheists, agnostics or nothing in particular. Americans who are secular are far more likely to vote for liberal candidates and for same-sex marriage. Seventy percent of those who said they had no religion voted for Obama, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research.
"This election signaled the last where a white Christian strategy is workable," said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization based in Washington.
"Barack Obama’s coalition was less than 4 in 10 white Christian," Jones said. "He made up for that with not only overwhelming support from the African-American and Latino community, but also with the support of the religiously unaffiliated."
In interviews, conservative Christian leaders pointed to other factors that may have blunted their impact in this election: They were outspent by gay rights advocates in the states where marriage was on the ballot; comments on rape by Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana were ridiculed nationwide and alienated women voters; and they never trusted Romney as a reliably conservative voice on social issues.
However, they acknowledge that they are losing ground. The evangelical share of the population is both declining and graying, studies show. Large churches like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God, which have provided an organizing base for the Christian right, are losing members.
"In the long run, this means that the Republican constituency is going to be shrinking on the religious end as well as the ethnic end," said James L. Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
Meanwhile, religious liberals are gradually becoming more visible. Liberal clergy members spoke out in support of same-sex marriage, and one group ran ads praising Obama’s health care plan for insuring the poor and the sick.
In a development that highlighted the diversity within the Catholic Church, the "Nuns on the Bus" drove through the Midwest warning that the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, would cut the social safety net.
For the Christian right in this election, fervor and turnout were not the problem, many organizers said in interviews. White evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate — 3 percent more than in 2004, when they helped to propel President George W. Bush to re-election. During the Republican primaries, some commentators said that Romney’s Mormon faith would drive away evangelicals, many of whom consider his church a heretical cult.
And yet, in the end, evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Romney — even matching the presidential vote of Mormons: 78 percent for Romney and 21 percent for Obama, according to exit polls by Edison Research.
"We did our job," said Reed, who helped pioneer religious voter mobilization with the Christian Coalition in the 1980s and ’90s, and is now founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
He said that his organization outdid itself this year, putting out 30 million voter guides in 117,000 churches, 24 million mailings to voters in battleground states and 26 million phone calls.
"Those voters turned out, and they voted overwhelmingly against Obama," Reed said. "You can’t just overperform among voters of faith. There’s got to be a strategy for younger voters, unmarried voters, women voters — especially single women — and minorities."
The Christian right should have a natural inroad with Hispanics. The vast majority of Hispanics are evangelical or Catholic, and many of those are religious conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion. And yet, the pressing issue of immigration trumped religion, and Obama won the Hispanic vote by 44 percentage points.
"Latino Protestants were almost as inclined to vote for Mr. Obama as their Catholic brethren were," said Guth, at Furman, "and that’s certainly a big change, and going the wrong direction as far as Republicans are concerned."
The election outcome was also sobering news for Catholic bishops, who this year spoke out on politics more forcefully and more explicitly than ever before, some experts said. The bishops and Catholic conservative groups helped lead the fight against same-sex marriage in the four states where that issue was on the ballot. Nationwide, they undertook a campaign that accused Obama of undermining religious liberty, redoubling their efforts when a provision in the health care overhaul required most employers to provide coverage for contraception.
Despite this, Obama retained the Catholic vote, 50 to 48 percent, according to exit polls, although his support slipped from four years ago. Also, solid majorities of Catholics supported same-sex marriage, said Jones, the pollster.
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., who serves on the bishops’ domestic policy committee, said that the bishops spoke out on many issues, including immigration and poverty, but got media attention only when they talked about abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty. Voters who identify as Catholic but do not attend Mass on Sunday may not have been listening, he said, but Catholics who attend Mass probably "weigh what the church has to say."
"I think good Catholics can be found across the political spectrum," Soto said, "but I do think they wrestle with what the church teaches."