Political Hay

Social Conservatives in the Age of Red Ink

Moral fervor needn't be their only weapon.

By 2.17.11

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Social conservatives have long been described as the Silent Majority. But amidst the recent Republican resurgence, they have been even quieter than usual. When Dr. James Dobson was king of the pro-family airwaves, he needed only ask his listeners to call their congressman about family, marriage, or life issues and they would shut down Capitol switchboards. After the 2004 elections, pro-life activists led a campaign to deny pro-choice Arlen Specter the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The social issues have since receded into the background, thanks to a faltering economy and swelling national debt. Today, the Tea Party -- channeling Adam Smith more than Dr. Dobson -- lights up Capitol Hill switchboards in opposition to tax increases and Obamacare.

Though a 2009 Gallup poll found 51% of Americans consider themselves pro-life, over and over, polls report the economy, healthcare, and government ethics trump voters' concerns over the decline of marriage or rise in the number of abortions. A Rasmussen poll this week found 83% of those surveyed said the economy was (still) the most important issue to them.

Even at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, (CPAC) the much-predicted showdown between the gay Republican group GOProud and social conservatives failed to materialize -- and not entirely because of the anti-GOProud boycott. Of the thirty-some forums during the three-day event, two emphasized social conservatism (three if you count the one that covered judicial activism). The one I attended, "The Pro-Life Movement: Plans and Goals," drew a small crowd and little vocal enthusiasm from the audience.

Anna Franzonello, staff counsel at Americans United for Life (AUL), was one social conservative who tried to connect moral issues with the movement's fiscal focus. AUL is partnering with others including the also-present CitizenLink to urge Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, the country's leading abortion provider. In an op-ed for the Washington Times Franzonello said: "Mr. Obama and Planned Parenthood have not been shy in announcing affection for each other over the past several years. However, less well known is the de facto advisory role the abortion-industry giant has been given by the president and the extent of the government funding it receives."

Likewise in their pro-life agenda for 2011, the Texas Right to Life said first on the list was to "decrease state money that funds the abortion industry." A freshmen representative has already pre-filed a bill that, if passed, would accomplish this. Several of the additional points boasted similar financially motivated ways to encourage their local legislature to start saving the lives of Texas's unborn.

It wouldn't be the first time religious conservatives found a way to promote their views through something other than moral fervor. The great abolitionist William Wilberforce had struggled mightily to end slavery but failed. As portrayed clearly and beautifully in the film Amazing Grace, Parliament actually adopted the first ban on the slave trade out of wartime patriotism.

Wilberforce estimated 80% of all slave ships sailing to the New Indies were flying the neutral American flags to prevent them from being boarded by privateers. This bill removed that protection. Wilberforce hoped much of the slave trade would, by default, end almost overnight. He was right; the Foreign Slave Trade Bill passed; one year later the Slave Trade Act passed.

Could today's social conservatives similarly use popular concern about red ink to defund the social liberals who threaten the sanctity of marriage and innocent human life? Wilberforce's partner in passing the Foreign Slave Trade Bill, Thomas Clarkson, said: "We need to tuck this bill away somewhere and disguise it." Social conservatives in a Tea Party era may need to be similarly shrewd.

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.