Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s comments last week in support of same-sex marriage suggest he is unaware of what everyone knows: The religious right runs the Republican Party. Back when Republicans were in the majority, Christian conservatives were even said to run the country. And while it now seems as if Republicans were last in power during biblical times, it was actually only a short while ago.
Political writers churned out op-eds and even entire books warning about “Christianists” and the looming American theocracy. After the 2004 presidential election, it was popular in some quarters to forward e-mails joking that the United States had been taken over by “Jesusland.”
So why does the religious right have so little to show for the two years the Republicans enjoyed unified control of the federal government? The federal marriage amendment went nowhere. Roe v. Wade stuck around. George W. Bush did manage to veto expanded taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research, block federal funds for international family-planning groups that perform or advocate for legal abortions and appoint judges congenial to social conservatives.
No faction in the Republican Party got everything it wanted out of the Bush years. But economic conservatives did get the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Foreign-policy neoconservatives got regime change in Iraq. The social right can point to no equally consequential policy enacted for its benefit, despite commanding a larger bloc of voters than either of these other groups.
Such disappointments did not begin with the Bush administration. After decades of social-conservative activism, abortion is still considered a constitutional right. Organized prayer in public schools is not. The social issue on which conservatives have enjoyed the most ballot-box success in recent years — same-sex marriage — is already trending in a more liberal direction in courts, state legislatures and public opinion.
Fifteen years ago, a conservative commentator who now fears social issues will doom the GOP put the question this way: “If the Christian right is so powerful and well-organized, why does it nearly always lose?” It’s the kind of paradox that keeps theologians awake at night.
Yet the myth of the all-powerful religious right not only endures; it remains a favorite explanation for Republican electoral defeats. Social conservatives rightly wonder how this is so. Their issues featured much more prominently in the elections of 2002 and 2004, when Republicans did well, than in 2006 and 2008, when the GOP was trounced.
Legislation banning certain late-term abortions and recognizing unborn children as victims in federal crimes against pregnant women passed during Bush’s first term with little apparent backlash. Of the major issues that contributed to the GOP’s decline during the second term — Iraq, Katrina, Republican corruption and the economic crisis — social conservatives were the driving force behind exactly one: the Terri Schiavo debacle, which did less damage to Republican fortunes than the rest.
But Republican social conservatism is frequently about style more than substance. In place of the religious right’s policy agenda, Republicans have substituted identity politics for the “silent majority.” As the policy substance has gotten thinner, the campaign appeals to gun-toting hockey moms, overtaxed plumbers and churchgoing attitudinal red-staters have gotten more over the top.
Religious-right leaders seem aware of this predicament but unsure about how to respond. In recent election cycles, they have vacillated between threatening to bolt the GOP if their demands aren’t met and hugging the party even tighter. Socially conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher wrote of this tactic: “It makes your allies not like you very much.”
Which is precisely the problem: Even within the conservative movement, much less the Republican Party, there are people who don’t like the religious right very much. Conservative Christians have been rewarded for their loyal support of an unpopular president by being defined simply as “the kind of person who would support George W. Bush.”
Of course, there are millions of such people, and they deserve a voice in our nation’s politics. And the religious right speaks in varying degrees for the values of millions more who would never embrace that label — consider the recent Gallup Poll showing an uptick in the number of Americans who identify as “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice” on abortion.
A successful religious right must confront an uncomfortable problem: Social conservatives are currently less popular than social conservatism. The game of red-versus-blue identity politics has been played past the point of diminishing returns.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.