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Social Conservative Leaders Feel Scapegoated

Social Conservative Leaders Feel Scapegoated

By David Paul Kuhn - May 11, 2009

There is a brooding sense within top social conservative circles that they have become the revolving scapegoat of the Republican Party. Many of the longtime leaders of the Christian right, from Richard Land to Tony Perkins to Gary Bauer, expressed resentment in extended interviews with a singular theme: that the most loyal GOP bloc has been so quickly thrown under many critics' bus.

"There are powerful interest groups in the party and in the country that are trying to scapegoat social conservatives," Land said, who has long served as a bridge between Southern Baptists' political concerns and GOP leadership. "It's people who have no problem ignoring facts."

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Social conservatives have proven perhaps the most loyal Republicans. The September 15th economic crisis brought Democrats to new ground across red America. States from Indiana to Florida to North Carolina shifted to Barack Obama after the market crash. In this last chapter of the campaign Obama made inroads with GOP strongholds like white men.

But social conservatives did not budge. Only 29 percent of whites who attend church weekly backed Obama. That is the precise portion who voted for Al Gore and John Kerry. Half of all Americans who voted for John McCain were weekly church attendees. White evangelicals or born-again Christians comprised 42 percent of the GOP vote, according to exit polls.

Despite their loyalty to the GOP, traditionally, after national losses, social conservatives feel like the whipping boy of GOP critics.

"The party alienated too many Americans by allowing social conservatives to dominate," read one New York Times article shortly after Bill Clinton won in 1992. To win, "we're going to have to take on the religious nuts," argued a GOP strategist after Clinton's reelection four years later.

"That's the pattern that has emerged over the last couple of decades," said Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council. "People want to find an easy excuse for the GOP's failures and they try to point to the social conservative issues and by extension social conservatives."

Today, many social conservatives believe that this pointing is more pervasive.

There was Chris Matthews recently grilling Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference, over whether he believes in creationism.

There was the first gathering of top Republicans this month to talk about the future of the GOP. Notably absent from the conversation led by Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, a top House Republican, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was talk of cultural issues like abortion.

At an April gathering of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP organization, McCain's 2008 campaign manager Steve Schmidt urged Republicans to support gay marriage. Schmidt's speech was a widely publicized break with one of social conservatives two primary political concerns.

"The Republicans deserve to lose elections under the rule of 'too-stupid-to-govern' if they choose the Log Cabin constituency over social conservatives," Land said of Schmidt's speech.

Social conservatives also contend with Schmidt's, among others, broader inference that the GOP is becoming a fundamentalist religious party.

"You put public policy issues to a religious test, you risk becoming a religious party," Schmidt said in his speech.

Conservative Christian leaders argue that they don't tout veto power over the GOP. McCain was not their top choice in the 2008 Republican primaries, they note.

"Social conservatives are not the gatekeeper of the Republican party," Bauer said, a longtime Christian conservative leader who served as Ronald Reagan's chief domestic policy adviser.

At the same time, social conservatives face a cultural hurdle with younger voters. Voters under age 30 are slightly more conservative on the abortion issue than earlier generations. But young people are more liberal on gay rights issues.

McCain's daughter, Meghan, personifies this generational tension. "I am a pro-life, pro-gay-marriage Republican," she describes herself.

Voters under age 30 are more likely to believe abortion should be illegal than voters age 30 to 64, by a margin of 48 to 41 percent, according to the April poll by the Pew Research Center--a trend Pew polling also found in 2008. Pew polling in recent years has also shown that younger voters are less likely to oppose gay marriage.

Still, overall, it does seem peculiar that in this year, of all years, discussion of the GOP's minority status has centered mostly on moving away from cultural conservatives.

Not since 1980 has the economy so dominated a presidential campaign, based on the portion of voters who selected it as their primary issue in exit polls. Sixty-three percent of voters said the economy was their top issue. A Pew post-election media report found that social issues--like abortion or gay marriage--constituted less than one percentage point of all campaign news, surely a low since the beginning of the Reagan era.

On Election Day, in one of the few metrics of national cultural debates, a majority of voters in California, Arizona and Florida approved bans on same-sex marriage.

More recently, Pew polling found in late April that the American public has actually become slightly more conservative on cultural issues like abortion and gun control. Other polls show the public view of abortion remaining steady. At minimum, it's clear Americans are as divided as ever on the issue.

A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that by a margin of 49 to 45 percent, the public considers itself more "pro-choice" than "pro-life." Though significantly, amid talk of cultural moderation, two-thirds of Republicans said they were "pro life" in the poll.

The same-sex marriage debate particularly poses a regional cultural hurdle for the GOP. Rhode Island may soon be the sole New England state where same-sex marriage is not legal. Legislators in Maine and New Hampshire recently voted to legalize gay marriage.

Washington D.C. legislators also recently voted to recognize same-sex marriages in other states. Gay marriage advocates have gained ground perhaps nowhere more visibly than in Iowa. An Iowa Supreme Court ruling in April made Iowa the first state in the nation's heartland to allow same-sex marriage.

Many conservative Christian leaders do acknowledge that in more socially liberal regions of the country like New England, the GOP cannot have a strict cultural litmus test on social issues.

"Republicans in those moderate districts have to choose the Republicans that most represent their views," Land said, when asked by me if Republicans running in more culturally left-leaning constituencies should be opposed by cultural conservatives.

Debate over gay marriage has particularly placed cultural conservatives in an awkward position. They bristle at assertions that their opposition is comparable to opposition to blacks' civil rights in the sixties or that their position is radical.

The CNN poll shows that a majority of voters, including a majority of independents, believe same-sex marriages should not be legal. Yet in the sixties, a majority of Americans also opposed the pace of civil rights reforms.

Social conservatives emphasize however that their opposition to same-sex marriage is shared by Obama, as well as other top Democrats like Hillary Clinton.

Cultural conservatives were especially riled recently by the debate over whether California's Carrie Prejean was denied the national crown in the Miss USA pageant because she said, when asked, that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

"I have not been able to find a difference between Barack Obama's position and Miss California's position," Bauer said. "But Miss California is being smeared and Barack Obama is seen as a hero by that community."

The coming Senate hearings over the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice will likely further ratchet up the cultural debate.

There is some chatter in circles of moderate Republican strategists that the GOP should stay with cultural conservatives on rhetoric but shy away on policy. If that occurs, Land said, "Republicans delude themselves to thinking that social conservatives will have no where else to go."

In the end, the GOP leadership will likely not move away from social conservatives anytime soon. They are aware of the coalition math. A divorce between the Christian right and the GOP would leave Republicans in ruin.

This is why, despite the heightened rhetoric today, Bauer is skeptical of any divide between the GOP and its largest bloc.

"I'm not concerned that they could actually be that stupid," Bauer said. "There are whole areas of the country where the only reason the Republicans are competitive are because of values and social issues."

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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