Getting Religion, Republican Style

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

April 1, 2005

The Terri Schiavo saga has prompted yet another round of fears that the Republican Party has been hijacked by religious conservatives. The truth, however, is just the opposite: Religious conservatives have been hijacked by the Republican Party.

The odd thing is how many people continue to believe that the religious right pulls the strings in the White House and Congress. John Danforth, a moderate former GOP senator from Missouri, expressed this fear the other day in a New York Times Op-Ed article.

The traditional Republican agenda, he wrote, has "become secondary to the agenda of Christian conservatives. As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way around."

There is a remarkable amount of illogic packed into that paragraph. I suspect Danforth didn't worry about gay marriage in his Senate days because it didn't exist yet. And today, the Republicans don't care about holding down the deficit not because they don't care about fiscal issues but because their fiscal agenda consists of things that make the deficit larger rather than smaller. If President Bush had a more ambitious economic agenda, the deficit would be even higher.

But the larger fallacy here is the idea that the conservative social agenda has subordinated the conservative economic agenda. How much time has Bush spent worrying about gay marriage? Not very much. In January, a reporter asked Bush about the prospects of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which he has said he supports. But Bush just shrugged and said it didn't have enough votes in the Senate. "Until that changes," he observed, "nothing will happen in the Senate." For his part, Bush did nothing to move it along.

Gay marriage isn't the only Bush priority that lacks support in Congress. Social Security privatization doesn't have the votes to pass either. Rather than throw up his hands, though, Bush has persuaded business groups to raise millions of dollars to lobby for privatization, twisted the arms of recalcitrant lawmakers and barnstormed the country for weeks touting his approach and threatening dire consequences for those who stand in his way. And even as support for his approach has plummeted from already low levels, he's vowed to keep on fighting. On Social Security privatization, he's Winston Churchill. On gay marriage, he's Neville Chamberlain.

As a supporter of gay rights, I'm happy that Bush hasn't pushed the issue. But why aren't the leaders of the Christian conservative movement, who regard gay marriage as a threat to Western civilization, unhappy? The answer is that they've been co-opted. Republicans will help the social conservative cause but rarely spend any political capital on it. Take the Schiavo case, which supposedly demonstrates the social conservatives' power. Sure, Bush flew across the country to sign a bill "protecting" her. But as soon as polls showed the public disapproved of Washington's intervention, Bush dropped the issue like a hot potato.

The main social conservative groups exist mainly to persuade rank-and-file social conservatives to support an agenda to which they have no natural allegiance. High on the Christian Coalition's list of its top legislative priorities, for instance, are cutting taxes (No. 2) and privatizing Social Security (No. 4), two issues that did not receive heavy emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount. Their top issue — confirming Bush's judicial nominees — does have a social angle. But in point of fact, conservative judges have been far more aggressive in overturning regulations on business than in turning back the clock on abortion or gay rights. That's why business groups have raised millions of dollars to help confirm Bush's judges.

I suspect that, behind closed doors, most Washington Republicans take religious conservatives for suckers. This has been evident from the Washington Post's recent revelations about GOP activist and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Three years ago, a casino-owning Louisiana Indian tribe called the Coushatta hired Abramoff to help stop another tribe from opening a casino, which the Coushatta feared would dilute their business. Abramoff hired former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, who enlisted Focus on the Family's James Dobson, who spurred his followers to send thousands of letters opposing the new casino. The poor souls riled up to stop legalized gambling had no idea that they were pawns of another casino. It's a perfect metaphor for the relationship between the Republican elite and the voters who put them into office.